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Why Marissa Mayer is right about telecommuting

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer

We’ve all heard by now about Yahoo CEO’s Marissa Mayer’s memo to curb telecommuting at the company.

Yahoo’s HR directive states, in relevant part, that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” In order to be “one Yahoo!, [we must be] physically together.”

The words demand scrutiny, particularly in context. Yahoo is a company built upon virtual content. It is betting its resurgence on the construction of an online community of users. And, as one of her first major actions to shake up the company culture, Mayer has declared that the path toward realizing the company’s vision lies in the physical, rather than the virtual, world.

The extraordinary thing is that she is absolutely right. Telecommuting is not a fad. It has far outlasted any thought that it was a temporary phenomenon. But in the rush to embrace new technologies and lower overhead, many companies have inexplicably discounted the value of actual in-person, face-to-face interaction – both planned and unplanned. Conversations in the hall are lost, for example. Mayer knows what true collaboration is. More importantly, she knows that when the stakes are high, she can accept no substitutes.

Mayer’s message should be understood by those who embrace the notion of an employee-friendly company by allowing work from home. It should be evaluated by those companies working to create one identity from regional offices.

There is no substitute for knowing what team members are like unscheduled. There is no Skype meeting that can bring together ideas spontaneously the way a spark can be generated by people who happen to have been simultaneously afflicted by the munchies and find themselves searching together for the last bag of Fritos.

There are many people in my neighborhood who telecommute. They brag about their 20 foot commute and tell me they don’t miss the traffic. I wonder, though, what they are missing.