If we live to work, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to require all employees to work from Yahoo headquarters every day, not telecommute from their homes, makes perfect sense.
After all, there are undeniably benefits that occur when employees work in the same space. Working in the same space forces interactions between colleagues, whether it’s running into each other at the coffee pot or in the cafeteria. Such impromptu conversations can facilitate friendships and mutual trust, and lead to productive discussions and exchanges. The late Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs understood this: He proposed having just two bathrooms in Pixar’s huge building in order to force more hallway conversations. While e-mail is a terrific tool for communicating quickly, it’s no substitute for in-person conversations — not when so much of our communication relies on body language. Ms. Mayer is likely accurate to suspect that Yahoo will become a stronger company for forcing workers to be there in person.
Yet if work isn’t our top priority – if we prioritize other relationships above those we have with our work colleagues – Ms. Mayer’s decision is terrible.
There’s a reason telecommuting has become so popular. For starters, it frees workers from the onerous burden of commuting. Commutes, especially in Silicon Valley where Yahoo is based, can be horrific. Thanks to the fact that cheaper housing is far from where the big companies are located, employees must battle clogged freeways, where bumper-to-bumper traffic is the norm, in mornings and evenings daily. Wasting that time – which of course isn’t compensated – is draining, depleting the energy employees have for outside work activities.
The top benefit from telecommuting, however, is how family-friendly it is. It frees parents whose kids need only limited supervision to work and simultaneously be there for their children if an emergency occurs, instead of having to hire someone else to do so. It can often give parents the flexibility to do some or all of their work at times that best fit their schedule. When I was growing up, for instance, my mom used to start work at 4 a.m., when her children were still asleep.
Such flexibility is crucial. Modern life, particularly for women, is far from ideal for juggling the
too often conflicting demands of career and family. In their 20s and 30s, prime years for ascending the career ladder, women must also deal with the biological reality that those decades are also the key time to have children. Most women want to spend time with and be near those children. Even Ms. Mayer installed a nursery for her newborn son next to her office. For women who can’t bring their children into the workplace, though, telecommuting allows them to work without sacrificing contact with their kids.
For most of America’s history, both parents weren’t commuting – and at times neither was. (Think “Little House on the Prairie,” where both parents worked the farm.) As Jonathan Last observes in “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting” (Encounter, 2013), “As Phillip Longman argues, telecommuting also offers something more: the possibility of returning the home to the center of economic activity in America.” If we need to increase fertility rates – and Mr. Last makes a compelling case that our economic future likely depends on a growing population – society should be invested in making the option of telecommuting the new normal.
Yet it’s also crucial because we only have so much time in our lives to devote to relationships. So why should we give a third of our day (or more) every weekday to colleagues, instead of to our family? If body language matters, why shouldn’t employees give their children the in-person communication – and all the benefits it includes – instead of their co-workers? If impromptu conversations are vital to fostering relationships and trust, shouldn’t parents and children be having them throughout the day?
Ms. Mayer is absolutely right that modern technology – even with all the advances like Skype and instant messaging – isn’t a perfect substitute for being in the same room together. That’s also exactly why telecommuting should be permitted: because families shouldn’t have to choose between developing closer familial bonds or having a job.
Katrina Trinko writes for National Review Online and is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.