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Q&A with Susan Epstein: The Impact of Marissa Mayer's Work-From-Home Ban

March 4, 2013

Marissa Mayer

As part of her plan to turn around the sluggish Yahoo! Inc., new CEO Marissa Mayer has offered employees complimentary lunches and company iPhones. But one new policy change—a ban on employees working from home—hasn’t been as popular among Yahoo! staffers and the general public alike.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” the human resources memo recently issued to Yahoo!’s 11,500 employees said. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Mayer’s announcement has sparked debate nationally about worker productivity, corporate leadership and the value of flexibility in the workplace. A few days after the memo was issued, DrexelNow spoke to Susan Epstein, a LeBow College of Business associate clinical professor with expertise in leadership, organizational culture and personality, about the implications of Mayer’s decision and whether it could ultimately impact Yahoo!’s success.

Is the 'no-work-from-home' policy common among managers? Would you say that the public's surprise at Mayer's decision is warranted?

Telecommuting, or working from home, is actually quite popular. In fact, according to U.S. Census statistics, 51 percent of men and 49 percent of women work full-time from home. Naturally, whether this type of work arrangement makes sense depends on the type of industry and the type of work being performed.

In a company such as Yahoo!, where creativity and innovation are extremely important, the debate continues. On one hand, you have people who believe that human interaction spurs creativity. The argument is sound—many motivation theories support the fact that social needs and the recognition that comes from personal interactions is essential for maximum productivity and increased self esteem.

On the other hand, many feel that rigid work schedules, long commutes and the stress of trying to maintain a work-life balance kills productivity and the creativity required to produce innovations. Not everyone operates on the same schedule. Some people are most productive and creative from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Those are not normal "business hours.”

Yahoo! finds itself swimming in a pretty competitive stream of innovators. Obviously, their current model is not working. Marissa Mayer's decision to require all workers to be hands on and present in the office stems from the need for change at Yahoo! Her job as CEO is to increase shareholder wealth. In order to do that, she is forced to look at what is or is not working in their current model and implement change.

How might Mayer's new policy influence the office culture at Yahoo!—if at all?

Change is never easy, nor is it often welcome. Shifting an entire corporate culture is a huge undertaking. In order for a leader to create successful change, he or she must have the support of the people within that organization. In this case, Mayer is asking people to completely change their ways of life. I’m sure many telecommuters at Yahoo! accepted their positions believing they would have the flexibility that telecommuting provides. Suddenly, that flexibility is gone with a single, unemotional, "cold turkey" memo.

If explained properly, change for the betterment of the company, and ultimately the employees in the form of more security, is something that most would accept. Would it still create hardships? Obviously, the answer is yes. Would some employees be unable to accept the new work arrangements due to personal issues? Again, the answer is yes. But if people are told that this new policy is in place to improve Yahoo!'s position in the competitive marketplace, and that by doing so each employee will ultimately benefit from a more profitable Yahoo!, the backlash would surely diminish.

Can unpopular decisions made by leaders affect overall productivity for an organization? Do you think it could in Yahoo!'s case specifically?

Employee satisfaction is so important in corporate productivity. Satisfied workers have strong organizational commitment, feel valued and stay longer. The bottom line is clearly affected by a satisfied work force. In my opinion, the approach to change that Mayer chose will indeed affect the attitudes and, ultimately, the behaviors of her employees. Those behaviors will most certainly manifest in lost productivity.