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Yahoo CEO tells employees: stop telecommuting

Back in 2011, a study by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) indicated that “an overwhelming majority of Canadian HR professionals (86 percent) believe there will be an increase in the number of employees working remotely (telecommuting/telework) in the near future. But despite the myriad of benefits associated with remote working, the biggest roadblock seems to be support from management.” And the recent action of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer seems to support that statement.

Telecommuting is a method whereby the employee works from home rather than at the employer’s premises. Such workers can work from home all their work time, or on an occasional or ad-hoc basis. Most telecommuters work from home a day or two per week.

A big piece of news trending in the papers and social media in the last couple of days is that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced on February 22, in an internal memo, that the company will no longer allow telecommuting, effective June 2013. As a result, Yahoo employees with work-from-home arrangements will be required to work out from a company office. The memo was leaked by a very irked employee and sparked debate on the pros and cons of working from home.

The memo is posted on this blog and provides the following reason for the ban on telecommuting at Yahoo:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

However, employees’ increased desire to balance their work and their family life, combined with employers’ desire to reduce their operating costs, makes telecommuting very attractive, as we illustrated in this previous blog post:

Many employers worry that if they let their employees work from home or outside of regular operating hours, the workers will slack off and the work won’t get done. This is ironic, since many employees who do enjoy a flexible work arrangement claim that they are actually more productive than when they’re tethered to the office or restricted by a 9-to-5 schedule. What’s more, employees on flexible arrangements often work more hours than they would at the office, maybe because they save time by not commuting, by arranging their personal lives better, or they simply enjoy their work more when they’re at home or away from the office. Employers that offer such arrangements surely understand these concerns, but they must also be willing to work with employees to make them feel comfortable and to take full advantage of the arrangement.

Despite the benefits, there are also some disadvantages. As we stated before, management is often the barrier to further adoption of this practice. According to the HRPA survey, their concerns regarding remote working include:

  • Employees don’t work as hard (64 percent)
  • Challenges to work scheduling (57 percent)
  • Security of company property (57 percent)
  • Loss of control over employees (52 percent)
  • A change in team dynamics (49 percent)

It is challenging for employers to verify the exact amount of hours worked by employees at home and to ensure the safe storage of their confidential information. However, these challenges are also felt while on the employer’s premises.

Also, according to some, this method of working is less conducive to collaboration and to the creation of a dynamic team. Well maybe!?

Even with the Yahoo debacle, common ground on the subject will be hard to find. The debate is ongoing and everybody has an opinion that fits their own workplace culture.

Richard Branson, head of Virgin Group, comments in a blog on the Virgin website on the matter, and in my opinion, it says it all:

This seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.

If you provide the right technology to keep in touch, maintain regular communication and get the right balance between remote and office working, people will be motivated to work responsibly, quickly and with high quality.

This said, telecommuting/telework should be used as a benefit that allows your best employees the flexibility to work wherever and whenever it makes sense. For example, when there are unexpected work demands, snow storms, deadlines, or if an employee must take care of a sick family member. Organizations must define and set parameters for all telework arrangements. Studies show that clear guidance and direction increase the chances of success for telecommuting/telework programs.

A good telecommuting/telework policy lays the groundwork for successful telework arrangements with employees. If your organization doesn’t have an established telework policy, it’s a good time to develop one. If your organization already has a telework policy, you can devote more of your attention to the planning required for the successful implementation of individual telework requests.

Many factors can affect the success of a telework arrangement, including the employee, the job, the manager, co-workers and the organization’s information technology. These and other organizational factors may also be affected when one or more employees work at home. Careful planning provides the foundation for maximizing successes and minimizing challenges.

In addition, it is a best practice to treat a home-based employee in the same manner that you treat any employee in the office. Teleworkers are covered under Employment/Labour Standards legislation, but New Brunswick is the only province to include telecommuting within the Employment Standards Act (ESA) to cover this form of work arrangement. For example, work hours and overtime provisions found in the ESA apply to teleworkers as well. For example, employers will still be obligated to pay these types of employees’ overtime, even if the employer has not authorized it and previously made it clear to at-home/virtual office employees that their job is to be limited to straight time only.

A written telework agreement jointly developed by employees and the employer (and union representative, where appropriate) establishes common understanding, expectations and responsibilities. To ensure employers have a handle on what goes on in home offices or virtual offices, and to reduce the likelihood of surprise overtime claims for instance, employers telecommuting policies and agreements should consider the following elements (list is not exhaustive):

  • Give employees explicit written directions not to work more than the weekly legislated hours of work. If they need to work more, employees must receive prior written approval from a supervisor.
  • Establish and enforce methods for monitoring work done at home. Have a system that allows employees to self-report or certify in writing the hours they work each week.
  • Educate managers, supervisors and employees on balancing production needs with hours of work and overtime considerations.
  • Consider that time spent at a home office performing preliminary and follow-up work for the employer also counts as hours worked.
  • Apply health and safety laws to home offices, especially when it comes to work-related equipment and workspace practices. Impose strict reporting requirements on all injuries, and request specific information about how injuries occurred.
  • Minimize exposure to third-party claims. Both negligent and intentional acts by employees working from home that harm a third party can expose employers to liability.
  • Implement specific performance expectations and criteria for evaluation (establish clear goals with measurable objectives and deadlines).
  • Ensure that home-based teleworkers have access to information by making any necessary adjustments to your communications policies and practices.
  • Manage by results.
  • Plan workplace meetings (as often as possible) that accommodate home-based teleworkers.
  • Enhance the career development opportunities of teleworkers by ensuring that they have equal opportunities to take on challenging assignments, lead team projects and share informal learnings.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 15 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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