Work Is Where the Laptop Is

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends a session of the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2013 at the Sw
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends a session of the World Economic Forum 2013 Annual Meeting on January 25, 2013 at the Swiss resort of Davos. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is taking place from January 23 to 27. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

I have a confession to make: I once wrote a keynote speech for a high-ranking senior executive at a Fortune 500 company from a hospital bed. I've taken client and work calls from just about every vacation spot imaginable and even developed a launch strategy for a new product release while on maternity leave. If I -- and countless others -- can do all of that, why shouldn't we also be able to occasionally do it from home?

Frankly, I thought this was a question that never needed asking until I saw this week's announcement from Yahoo!'s HR department that employees will no longer be able to work remotely. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," HR head Jackie Reses states in memo to employees. "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." (Kara Swisher published the memo).

The irony is that the very technology that Mayer has spent her career evolving is the very one that cuts the proverbial cord tying people to the office as the only physical workspace. We now have access to just about anything one might need thanks to our electronic files, our highly capable smart phones and even a search engine called Google where current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer was an executive and engineer for many years.

I recently heard Mayer speak at the Fortune Most Powerful Women event in Silicon Valley where Fortune editor Patti Sellers asked, "What would you like to see Yahoo! be two years from now that it is not now?" I was impressed with her quick and certain response, "I want it to be an absolute great place to work. I want it to have a fantastic culture." Perhaps that was meant more literally than I and others thought. Regardless, I doubt she was referring to better cafeteria food.

In her Huffington Post piece, "Marissa Mayer's Work-From-Home Ban Is the Exact Opposite of What CEOs Should Be Doing" Lisa Belkin wrote:

I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I'd thought that while she was breaking some barriers... she might take on the challenge of breaking a number of others. That she'd use her platform and her power to make Yahoo! an example of a modern family-friendly workplace. That she would embrace the thinking that new tools and technology deserve an equally new approach to where and how employees are allowed to work.

To be clear -- and fair -- in my opinion, media has not often been either to Mayer. It wasn't long ago that I came to her defense when coverage of her appointment seemed to focus more on her love of high-end fashion and cupcakes than on her qualifications. I sincerely believe that if any male CEO had instituted the same policy, we'd be hearing an almost equal backlash. The fact that this CEO is a woman only makes it, well, more disappointing.

At Edelman -- and many companies like it -- the general policy is up to the individual and their manager, depending on the type of work. Katie Burke, Edelman's global chief of staff, works from home two days a week and has flex hours the other three days. Her direct manager? Yeah, it's the CEO.

What's surprising is what appears to be a disregard to the endless research that speaks to the benefits of flex time and working remotely, not only for the employees who are able to reduce traffic time, improve work/life balance and feel more productive. But also for the employers who get great productivity from their employees, improved morale, energy savings and talent retention. An HBR blog, "Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged," sums it up well.

Just last week, Stanford released the findings of a nine-month study of a Chinese-based travel agency. According to the findings:

Home working led to a 13 percent performance increase, of which about nine percent was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and four percent from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover.

Given Stanford's proximity to Yahoo!, I'm sure they wouldn't mind sharing the research.

In Edelman's 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer findings, "treating employees well" had the largest gap between expectations and performance globally -- meaning respondents have high expectations of it but see it achieved much less. Kara Swisher reported on the Yahoo! news: "Employees who work from home must comply without exception or quit. One top manager was told that there would be little flexibility on the issue."

In today's world, finding -- and retaining -- the best people should be our top priority. Toward that end, the most important thing any CEO can do is be honest, transparent and collaborative in developing and dictating policy.

For me, I don't really care where people physically work... as long as they get the work done. I once had a longstanding employee who wanted to coach his son's baseball game one day a week so we arranged for him to work from home that day. Clients loved him and, as a result of our flexibility, he was extremely loyal to Edelman. A workplace should never be defined as where your desktop computer lives; it should be where your commitment does.

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America and U.S. Western Region at Edelman.