Telework Bans Don't Address the Problem

Yahoo and Best Buy could learn from the best telework example out there: the federal government.

Late last month, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer announced that, as of June, the company’s employees generally will be banned from teleworking. Electronics store Best Buy last week followed suit by announcing it would cancel its flexible work arrangement, known as the Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE.

Those decisions have many scratching their heads as to why these leading companies would completely ban telework, particularly when many studies have indicated that telework is a valuable, cost-effective and productive option for companies and government agencies. As I’ve said before, telework has been a blessing to me, as it has allowed me to continue working through two military PCS moves and be home with my children.

Yahoo and Best Buy say their moves to ban telework aim to foster collaboration and innovation by bringing employees physically together. But is that really the case, particularly at a time when technology is making it all the more easier to collaborate? In fact, one expert believes Yahoo, Best Buy and other private sector companies can learn from the best example out there when it comes to telework: the federal government.

“Sometimes the federal government gets beaten a lot, but [telework] is one area where I think the private sector could really learn from the federal government’s example,” Cindy Auten, general manager for Mobile Work Exchange, told Wired Workplace this week. “The best thing is the federal government actually defines telework – they put metrics around it, look at everyone’s eligibility and put in management training. Sometimes the private sector doesn’t even define it.”

Ironically, Yahoo’s and Best Buy’s decisions to ban teleworking came during or just before this year’s annual Telework Week event, which ran March 4-8. Auten said this year’s event garnered more than 135,000 pledges, nearly twice that of last year’s event.  More than 90 percent of this year’s pledges were from the federal government, she added.

And that’s where companies like Yahoo and Best Buy could learn a lesson from the federal government’s example, Auten said, noting that teleworking is not likely the cause of any organization’s collaboration challenges, but rather the cultural and management challenges associated with the mobile workforce.

“It seems Yahoo had teleworkers who were likely poor performers, so they pulled the plug and brought them back in so they could watch them more closely,” Auten said. “Teleworking exposes employee performance issues, but bringing them back [into the office] isn’t going to fix the problem.” 

It’s unclear whether the examples of Yahoo and Best Buy will have a positive or negative impact on how employers view telework. Auten recommends that agencies struggling with perceived telework issues really look at the heart of their telework program and determine the root cause of performance issues.

It’s much easier for managers to blame telework as the problem rather than to admit to employees that there is a performance or trust issue, Auten said.  “I think those issues make managers uncomfortable,” she said. “But it forces more efficient government. We need managers to address the issues as opposed to just letting them go by.”