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The Telecommuting Debate

The recent decision of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to require all employees to report to the office to work rather than telecommute has set off a lively discussion in the business press and broader media as well. The subject was a topic on one of the major morning news shows Sunday, as well as appearing in two sections of The New York Times. It seems a nerve has been struck.

Yet many small business owners see the issue of telecommuting as irrelevant. You can’t work a production line, deliver products, wait tables or provide repair services sitting at home. Many businesses don’t have the opportunity to offer telecommuting as an option. And it seems to me that a lot of the discussion in the press has been between journalists, pundits and bloggers who have the luxury of being able to work remotely, and don’t have a personal grasp of jobs that can only be done on site.

Whether telecommuting is an option for your business or not, I think there are several worthwhile lessons to be learned from this debate.

First, don’t chase a trend just because it’s there. Think about the application of working remotely as you would any other business decision: how does this support your business strategy and is it right for your business culture? We’ve had workplace practices like telecommuting, flextime scheduling and combined paid time off plans in the workplace for several decades now, providing lots of data on how effective these practices are.

Studies show that companies that require creative collaboration, like Yahoo, are served better by having team members in the same place. There is also strong evidence to suggest that for many jobs, like programming and transcription, telecommuting increases productivity, and allows companies to attract and retain higher caliber talent. Base your company’s policy on your specific circumstances.

Second, recognize that greater workplace flexibility not only improves productivity and job satisfaction, but it’s becoming increasingly expected by employees. If the work your company performs doesn’t lend itself to telecommuting, other policies and management practices like flextime scheduling, alternative work schedules and combined leave plans give employees more choice in how they balance their work and non-work responsibilities. Greater workplace flexibility for employees has clear advantages in terms of attracting and retaining staff as well as in increasing productivity.

Finally, walk the talk. One of the reasons the blowback at Yahoo has been as extreme as it has is because the CEO built a nursery in her office for her baby before she implemented the change in the telecommuting policy, reportedly infuriating employees. As the leader of your business, your employees watch what you do, as well as hear what you say. Modeling the behavior you expect from them not only in the way you approach your work, but also the way you respect your personal time, and theirs, is a critical part of your leadership.