Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Presence Vs. Productivity: How Managers View Telecommuting


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The buzz has been building since the leak of an internal Yahoo memo last week on telecommuting. New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to end the company's work-from-home program. The memo, made public on the website AllThingsD, declares that communication and collaboration will be important, and that starts with physically being together.

Critics denounce Mayer's policy as a setback for workers, especially women, and bad policy for high tech. Supporters argue the decision will encourage innovation, just what the struggling company needs amid cutthroat competition from the likes of Google and Facebook.

Many critics, however, say it's a setback. We'd like to hear from employers and managers today. When does telecommuting work, and why; 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an update on the Italian elections, and we'll remember the late Van Cliburn. But we begin with Susan Gunelis, president and CEO of Keysplash Creative, a marketing and communications company. She joins us now on the phone from her home in Claremont, Florida. Good to have you with us today.

SUSAN GUNELIUS: Well, thank you so much for having me today.

CONAN: And you wrote a piece for Women in(ph) Business, where you describe this not just as bad policy but as cowardly. What did you mean by that?

GUNELIUS: So right, yeah. For, I wrote a piece - basically everyone was talking online about how this mandate was such a step back for parents, for work-life home balance; but for me, what really made me annoyed about the mandate was that it was a blanket mandate, that it applied to everyone. And it's more of a Band-Aid approach to fixing Yahoo's problems than actually, really figuring out what is going to turn this company around.

CONAN: Well, why is that cowardly?

GUNELIUS: Well, I think we've all worked at a company where you've had a boss who, one employee is doing something - maybe one employee is coming in late all the time. So the boss sends out an email basically reprimanding everyone, and reminding everyone of the policy and possibly creating a time clock - now, everyone needs to punch the time clock - when really, it's only one or two people who are ruining it.

So for me, when you lay down blanket mandates instead of identifying the problem and dealing with the problem on an individual basis, or figuring out who is taking advantage of the telecommuting policy and restricting those people from telecommuting versus the people who actually are more productive when they telecommute.

CONAN: And it's bad policy - well, they argue that we need everybody in the building to cross-fertilize with each other. It's going to help innovation and, well, Yahoo needs some innovation.

GUNELIUS: Well, I'd argue two points on that. First of all, I don't think innovation is necessarily Yahoo's biggest problem. I think it's lack of focus. And secondly, I'd say, does anyone really think that by having everyone physically in the office it's going to turn Yahoo around? If that's what they're hedging their bets on, then Yahoo is in more trouble. And I'm a cheerleader for Yahoo; I want them to succeed. But blanket mandates that say that everyone needs to be in the office every day? That's not what's going to turn the company around.

CONAN: There have been some who have speculated online that in fact, this is a back-handed way of cutting staff without announcing a staff cut.

GUNELIUS: Well, I think there's probably a lot of accuracy to that. I think that oftentimes, instead of firing people or letting people go, I think we see in corporate America all the time - because let's face it, it's hard to fire people in corporate America. There are all kinds of HR hoops you have to go through to get someone fired. So instead, you make their life miserable and try to force them out. So yeah, I do think that there's some truth to that. But I also think that Marissa Mayer needed to make a big, bold move. And I'm sure this wasn't just her idea. I'm sure that there were other powers-that-be who were involved in this decision. But it's a big, bold move, and it's getting a lot of backlash.

CONAN: We want to hear from managers and employers today. How does telecommunicating work out for you and your workers - 800-989-8255; email us, And we'll start with Ray, and Ray's on the line with us from Cupertino, California.

RAY: Hi, thanks a lot. I think the move that Yahoo is making here actually makes a lot of sense for who Yahoo is, in terms of the company. And it has a lot to do with the culture. A lot of times, what happened was - you know, when Yahoo was starting, you had a lot of 20-, a lot of 30-year-olds that came, and everybody knew each other. People were working there from, you know, 7 in the morning, coming home late at night, and they built those bonds. But 10 years out, 20 years out, they don't have that ability to have that same kind of interaction.

And when you're competing against Facebook and Apple and everybody - and Google - and when they're busing their people in from the city, they're busing people into all the facilities, to have those kind of conversations, to have that - and spur that kind of creativity. It's something you need. And I see that even though I run a firm where we have 25 people that are, you know, disparate. We're a complete virtual firm. But at this point in time, when we look at Yahoo - I mean culturally, they don't want to become Sun, or they don't want to become HP; where folks do telecommuting but don't even have time to come to work because they're too busy doing something else besides doing work. And it can become an endemic problem.

CONAN: And so you how do you manage that problem, if you manage telecommuters?

RAY: Well, you have to build in those interaction points, right? You try to create collaboration tools. You try to use - you know, things such as tweets and chats and social tools, to bring people together. But you still need that personal time when you need to work on ideas and products. Now, someone who talked about this earlier - like, if you're in sales, or if you're in customer service; I mean, areas where you're performing - I mean, the problem with the move is that it's completely blanket move, across the board. It doesn't take an account for individual actions. But it also underlines the seriousness, in terms of the culture at Yahoo. And I can see why she's doing that.

CONAN: So they needed to make a statement, that bold part that Susan Gunelis was talking about.

RAY: Exactly.

CONAN: All right.

RAY: It's bold, so - but it could lead - you will lose people. They'll definitely lose people and hopefully, they don't lose the good people.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

RAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk with Ben Waber. Now, he studies telecommuting, among other workplace issues. He's president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, and a former researcher at the Harvard Business School. He joins us from studios at Stanford University. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

BEN WABER: Great to be back.

CONAN: And Yahoo made this decision and defended it today in public, in the name of increasing creativity. Do they have a point?

WABER: Yeah, they do. I mean, so in our work, we actually collect hard data on communication patterns - how people talk face to face but also, how people talk digitally. And we relate that to how productive they are, how happy they are, how creative they are. And the key thing is that - you know, we have a myth, I think especially in this country, that the most productive time of the day is when you sit at your computer and don't talk to anybody. But actually, especially in fields like software development, they're incredibly collaborative fields. And it's something where, you know, if your code, the thing you're working on, depends on a lot of other people's code, and if you don't talk to those people, the probability that a bug will pop up is extremely high. It's about 12 times higher.

And we've been able to show, even in software teams when you have remote workers, they're about - again, 8 percent less likely to communicate about those things, and it takes them about 32 percent longer to complete code; not to mention all the social aspects that you get by being in the same place as other people, by having a shared culture, by trusting other people, by being able to support them if they have trouble at home or at work.

Now that said, there's a big difference between, you know, a couple times a month telecommuting into the office because you've got things to do at home, and every day of the year never seeing the people you work with. And I think we're sort of conflating those two issues.

CONAN: So there are basically two - broadly speaking, two types of telecommuters.

WABER: Yeah. I mean, there's people who - again, occasionally; maybe, you know, once a week or so, you know, for various reasons, need to come in - um, you know, need to stay home. And then there's other...

CONAN: The cable guy is coming, yeah.

WABER: Exactly. And it's - and the data is pretty convincing that that is an effective way to work because listen, if you've got very stressful things going on in your life, you're obviously not going to be that effective at work. But, you know, on the other hand, if you never talk to the people face to face that you work with - I mean, the data shows very convincingly that just the communication tools we have today, as your previous caller was talking about, really just aren't enough to get it done.

CONAN: There are also - you mentioned particularly in software, creative fields - Yahoo is a big company. They've got - sure - a lot of software developers. They've got a lot of accountants, too. Is this a wise policy to say across the board, "You guys can't telecommute, either"?

WABER: Well, I think an important point - so you know, again, there's obviously - I think just saying no one can ever telecommute in, is probably the wrong decision. But, you know, really important point is, we've even worked in places such as call centers, which are traditionally really thought of as places where face-to-face communication doesn't matter. And if you look at what actually makes people effective, still the biggest predictor is face-to-face communication. And so, you know, maybe for certain roles, it's certainly going to be easier to telecommute, and maybe it's easier to do that more, maybe, in certain fields - again, when you get to sort of this idea that managers and people themselves can understand what - sort of the tradeoffs are, you know. But I think having a general policy, which might not be - match up exactly with what Yahoo did, but this idea that you need to be in the office as much as possible, is probably - is just, the data shows, that that is sort of the correct approach.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Martin(ph), Martin calling us from Santa Clara, California.

MARTIN: Hey, yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I work - currently work for a company that's got a global organization that many work remote as well as come into the office. But I can tell you that in all my experience - I've been managing remote environments since like, 1988 - and the most difficult part is there is no single metric for measuring an individual's performance. There are people that are good at it - you know, managing their life and work from home - and there are people that are not good at it. And so the lack of that, you know, can cause, you know, executive management to decide hey, we need to pull everyone in.

But there is an aspect that you haven't talked about; which is, in my belief, that seeing people face to face offers more than just the communication - which is what everyone is saying; hey - you know - we can communicate the same way. But you can't. You can see facial inflections. You can see mood changes. You know, you can get the feel of a room when you're discussing, you know, projects and topics and maybe campaigns, things like that; that are completely missing that, you know, that you don't get on the phone. And video conferencing doesn't solve that. I know that might be an argument, but I've worked in this a long, long time. And I find that there are just, plain, people that are good at it and those that aren't.

CONAN: Susan Gunelis, I wonder if you wanted to respond to what Martin had to say.

GUNELIUS: Sure. I think that it goes back to what's being said again and again, by all of our callers - is that some people are capable of self-managing and can be far more productive working remotely, while others cannot. And it's up to leadership to be able to identify the employees that can be more productive, and more effective, when they're working from home.

But blanket policies that say no one can ever telecommute - is losing opportunities to enable some employees who do work better in that environment, to be able to work remotely. And that's not to say that they should never, ever come into the office. Certainly, there needs to be that flexibility; when they need to physically be in the office, they need to be able to come in. But at the same time, if they're never allowed to telecommute - and that could be something that's very important to some very, very talented people - you could be losing excellent talent because of your restrictions.

CONAN: Martin, thanks very much for the phone cal;, appreciate it.


CONAN: And we're going to continue this conversation with - about Yahoo's order to employees who work from home to report back to the office full time. Managers, when does telecommuting work, and when does it not - 800-989-8244. And it's the TALK OF THE NATION.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. And clearly, sometimes reporting into work and meeting with your workers face to face doesn't work, either. I just gave out the wrong phone number - 800-989-8255. Hmmpf!

Nearly a quarter of all employees report that they work from home at least some of the time. A growing number of states supporting telecommuting. It can save costs and gasoline. And with some jobs, it can boost productivity, too. But as we learned from Yahoo's recent decision, telecommuting also has its downsides, including reduced innovation.

We're talking today with employers. Managers, call and tell us when does telecommuting work and why - 800-989-8255; email is You can also join the conversation on our website; that's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests are Susan Gunelis, president and CEO of Keysplash Creative, founder of the blog; and Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, and author of the forthcoming book "People Analytics."

And we have this email - this is from Alex(ph) in Berkeley: I work in online marketing at a Fortune 500 company, and work from home four days a week. I'm listening to KQED right now - as I do every day - and hammering out emails and moving projects forward per usual; with meetings scheduled for this afternoon, using my conference line and WebEx. On days I go into the office, I spend three hours a day commuting between the East Bay and Mountain View; which adds stress, costs money, and reduces my productivity. On days I work from home, I work longer hours, don't waste any time in traffic, and I'm more productive and happy. While I don't expect to work from home four days a week in my next job, I would not apply to a company that doesn't allow any telecommuting.

And Susan Gunelis, I wanted to follow up with you on another criticism that we've heard of this decision by this young woman who's now the CEO of Yahoo, that she is - we've heard criticism that she's a traitor to her sex; that in fact, this is an important perk for a lot of women. Men, of course, use it too, but this is abusive to ask all the women employees to come in.

GUNELIUS: Well, I think it's not even just women because these days, there are men and women who need the flexibility, whether it be to drop their kids off at school or pick their kids up after school; who can do that during the time that, say, perhaps someone in the office would be taking their lunch hour. And you can work it into your schedule. So I think it's not just women, although women certainly are the ones still, unfortunately, who are assumed to be doing more of those familial tasks. But we live in a time when one parent working - just isn't the way that the world works anymore. And to have work-life balance - and unfortunately, most of us don't have the salaries that Marissa Mayer has; and we can't afford day care and nannies, and all these kinds of things. We need to be able to get our children as well, from wherever it is that they are, and be able to watch them.

So telecommuting offers that flexibility of your schedule. No one says these days, you need to be working from 9 to 5. Businesses work 24/7, and that there are many jobs - social media marketing, for example - when you should be online and working at various hours of the day, not necessarily just 9 to 5. So flexibility in scheduling, and remote working opportunities, is really just a smart move to make.

CONAN: And Ben Waber, other people say particularly in a high-tech industry, this may be a short-sighted policy.

WABER: Well, so there's certainly some issues. I mean, certainly for the Yahoo employees who joined assuming that they could work remotely all the time, I mean, they got a raw deal. But you know, it's something where we think of productivity - right? - and we think of, you know, as the caller who just called in said, we think of productivity as, again, sitting in front of the computer and banging out emails, scheduling things; and that's what makes us productive.

But it's not. This idea that your interactions with other people - you know, you give them new ideas, you get new ideas from them; and that if you even make five people a little bit more productive every day, those conversations are worth it. And that's sort of some of the things that we've been working on. And this idea that, you know, listen, it - you know, for a certain type of people, they're going to need to make - there's sort of a lifestyle decision in terms of, you know, where do you live and what sort of job do you want to work in. But we're really doing a disservice, particularly for people who are, again, I think making this a women's issue.

You know, as Susan said, it's a parents' issue because you're making these parents, you know, less productive if you're sort of saying, listen, you've got to - you know, we're going to offer you this way to work from home all the time and as a consequence, when you make it, you know, a women's issue, you're sort of, you know, skipping over the real egalitarian issue; that men need to take more responsibility for dropping off their kids, for raising their kids, and doing all that stuff.

CONAN: Let's go to Stephanie(ph), and Stephanie's with us from Longmont, Colorado.

STEPHANIE: Hi, Neal. How exciting.

CONAN: What do you have to say?

STEPHANIE: Well, I manage about 20 full-, part-time and vendor groups in a team, for a higher-education consulting business. I'm actually driving home from the airport, from a client visit this week - and spending the rest of my week telecommuting; meeting with my team, using things like GoToMeeting and conference lines, occasionally Skype or Google Plus as well. And I have to tell you, I cannot imagine another way to go. I am so grateful to my company for allowing me to do this. And frankly, on the family side, it has meant for my husband and I that our children did not have to go to day care. We made arrangements so that his schedule fit with mine when I was working from home. We brought a babysitter in when we needed to cover work hours.

And so they're all in school now full time but until that point, they did not have to leave the home to go to day care. And that made a significant impact, and I think a great benefit to my family, to my own mental sanity; having to leave them for airline trips, on a weekly basis - also brought me a lot of great comfort, that I knew that they weren't having that extra stress.

CONAN: Was there a downside?

STEPHANIE: I think that the only downside that I experienced personally - and I think it's my personality - is work-life balance in that my work is with me at home almost all the time. And so if I have a free moment on the weekends, you might find me curled up with the iPad, checking email or sending notes to colleagues through our project-management system. And some folks might find that a little annoying or disturbing, from time to time, but I do try and keep it in check when I can.

CONAN: We, of course, are cheered by the fact that you also use whatever commuting time you do have to do, to listen to the radio.

STEPHANIE: Without a doubt. You're always on.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Stephanie; appreciate the phone call. And I wanted to ask you, Susan Gunelis, as you look at this issue, some hoped that by coming over to Google from her previous - excuse me, coming over to Yahoo from her previous job at Google, that Ms. Mayer would be a role model, a pioneer there; and instead - that this might be a little bit retrograde.

GUNELIUS: I think it's ironic that Google has employees that telecommute, and so I think that that's interesting. But I think that your previous caller actually made a really good point about how the - one potential downside is that she ends up working all the time because the right people telecommuting - the workaholics, the type-A personalities, the people who truly self-manage and truly are passionate about their work, and really love what they do - they will put in more hours when they have access to the tools to do their jobs, at their fingertips every day of the week.

So again, it goes back to the right people telecommuting, who can self-manage. And as the previous caller mentioned, it creates extreme loyalty from an employee, which is something that - money can't buy that kind of loyalty. But the cost savings to Yahoo as well, for a lot of people to telecommute, is huge. And changing from that policy - research show a typical business saves $11,000 per person, per year, who telecommutes. And workers save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year.

And then on top of that, you think about the amount of oil. Research shows our oil savings would equate to over 37 percent of American imports from the Persian Gulf, if every person who could telecommute did so. So you look at all these different, far-reaching effects, and it's hard to justify not allowing anyone to telecommute.

CONAN: Ben Waber, can you confirm those statistics?

WABER: Well, so there's a few things. So you save money when people telecommute, in terms of not needing a desk - not needing, you know, office space. But what you're actually doing is, you're losing performance. I mean, the idea is that - you know, let's say we pay you $50,000 a year. If by coming in, you become 30 percent more effective, then you've already paid for all the furniture that you buy.

CONAN: And the heating, yeah...

WABER: Yeah. And the important point is that it's, again, not just your individual productivity. The important point about all this is what you're losing - is you're not losing the meetings; you can still do those online. You can still do those over the phone. It's these serendipitous interactions, these - you know, going to grab coffee, going to grab lunch with somebody. These important social interactions have a very measurable effect, and it's something that more than pays for - again, all the space, all the desks that people have. And companies are essentially asking the wrong question. They're looking at, you know, their physical footprint, and they're saying: How can I slice 10 percent out of that small part of the budget? What they should be asking is - saying, how can I, you know, make an environment - some of this is digital, some of this is physical - but how can I make an environment where my employees can be as effective as possible?

And that very well could mean - and a lot of times, does mean - spending more money on space, but that if you can see how that space translates into increased performance and increased productivity, then that's when you understand, how can I make these trade-offs between - again, for some people working from home more, and for a lot of these more creative teams where, again, these interactions are important - how can I get them to come in?

CONAN: This has been a favorite subject by some of the best writers in the country, on the op-ed pages. We're just going to read excerpts from a few of them. This is from Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post: How ironic that a technology company, dedicated to enabling connectivity, would enforce such a retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict. It reflect a bricks-and-mortar mindset in an increasingly cyber world. How depressing this edict comes from a female CEO, albeit a seemingly bionic one. You have to worry whether this is Mayer demonstrating that she is as tough, or as boneheaded as any guy.

This, from Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: Mayer has shown she is willing to do what it takes, with no coddling. She has a huge challenge in turning around Yahoo. She was the third of three CEOs at the company in 2012 alone. She had success brainstorming face-to-face during her years at Google, where she was the 20th employee, the first female engineer, and the shepherd of more than 100 products.

The Times' Laura Holson wrote that when meeting with Google subordinates: Mayer came across like a meticulous art teacher correcting first-semester students. Mayer's bold move looks retro and politically incorrect, but she may feel the need to reboot the company culture, harness creativity, cut deadwood and discipline slackers, before resuming flexibility.

And this is from Farhad Manjoo in Slate - a guest who's been on this program many times: Mayer is going to regret this decision. It's myopic, unfriendly, so boneheaded that I worry it's the product of spending too much time at the office. She did, after all, build a nursery next to her office to house her new baby. It's not just that the policy completely elides the virtues of working from home. Numerous studies have found that people can be more productive when they're allowed to work away from the office.

A little further on, Farhad writes: The working-from-home ban also reveals Mayer doesn't know how to measure her workers' performance. Swisher quotes a source who says Mayer has been irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning, quick to empty by 5 p.m. This is a classic bad-manager misconception that a full parking lot means people are getting stuff done. And it's easy for employees to game that system. If my boss makes it clear that she's looking for my car in the parking lot in the evenings and on weekends, all I've got to do to get noticed is spend a lot of time at the office. Sure, this will ruin the rest of my life but otherwise, it's easy. As long as I'm in the office, even if I'm just playing "Solitaire," I know I'm making a good impression.

We're talking about telecommuting and Yahoo. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go to Diane, Diane with us from Nashville.

DIANE: Hello. I love your show. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Thank you.

DIANE: I want to say, I'm a manager as well; and I see telecommuting as a privilege, not a right, and I would not start that way with anybody. I would want to test out their ability to self-structure, to produce, to show initiative, to demonstrate some maturity. And then they can earn some part of that. There's also certain tasks that take undivided attention; I could see letting someone go home.

But I agree with the comments made about the loss to the work environment and the culture and relationships. I have people who will send an email to the person in the next cube. I'm like, you're crazy - because every interaction is a chance to build a relationship, and you just blew that by jotting off a one-line email when you could go and engage, and maybe take everything to a higher level than just checking it off your task list.

CONAN: But I was interested what you said, Diane; that the - to have them establish, essentially, a baseline first, working at the office.

DIANE: Yeah. Yeah. I think - it takes a lot of maturity, I think, to self-structure and be as productive as you might be if you know I'm going to walk in at any moment and ask, what's going on?

CONAN: Susan Gunelius, that seems to accord with what you've been saying.

GUNELIUS: Well, absolutely because not everyone is capable of managing themselves. At the same time, I think that a good leader can recognize who is capable of managing themselves, and who is capable of doing their work to the best of their ability without micromanaging them. And I think that those people should be given the freedom to work the hours that they think they need to work and the - where they think they need to work, to get the job done. And it's certainly not something that everyone can do.

But saying that absolutely no one can telecommute; or referencing the quote that you used before, that the sign of a good employee is someone who works late and is in the parking lot past 5 - we've all worked in those corporate cultures, where that's the culture. It's - I had a boss who used to walk by - a vice president, early in my career - who used to walk by at 5 o'clock, at the end of the day. And if someone was leaving on time, he would say, oh, it looks like you don't have enough work to do.

And I think that's a culture that we need to move away from, and that's what puts us back in these situations, that kind of thinking where you do - you have to be required to work a massive amount of hours to demonstrate that you're a hard worker, and that you are putting in your 100 percent.

CONAN: Ben Waber, do you have those kinds of bosses there at Bio - Sociometric Solutions?

WABER: Oh, well, I don't think so. I mean, I do - I completely agree with those sentiments, though. The idea that you just need to put in face time, you just need to appear there and you need to, you know, stay there, stay at work very long hours, just to make a presence, is - that's not effective. The idea that - and again, also the idea that people should occasionally be able to telecommute into the office, even in these very complex jobs where you need a lot of coordination that can't just be covered by formal meetings, that - data has shown that that's still good.

However, the issue is that in the work that we do today and that is increasingly becoming a larger part of our economy, this very complex work requires incredibly tight coordination. And when you don't have that, then you have lots of things go wrong. And you just can't - no matter how much you try, when you're at home by yourself, if you actually aren't - are never talking face to face with the people that you work with, or even rarely talking face to face with people, you're going to be a lot less effective.

And so - again, not sort of watching the parking lot and trying to count the hours that people are in, but the idea that for a decent part of the day, you need to be in the office because you need to interact with other people. Like, that is something where the data shows that's very important. It makes not only individuals more productive and individuals happier but actually, it makes the entire office happier and more productive. And I think this idea where, you know, we can actually use data to show that that's the case across the wide variety of companies, is extremely important.

CONAN: Diane, thank you very much for the phone call.

DIANE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And I'd like to thank our guests. You just heard Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at MIT's Media Lab, who - president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, and a former senior researcher at Harvard's Business School. He joined us today from studios at Stanford University. Thanks very much for the time.

WABER: Thank you.

CONAN: And Susan Gunelius, president and CEO of KeySplash Creative, founder of the blog You can read her comments there. Thank you very much.

GUNELIUS: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, the political chaos in Italy. We'll also be remembering the great pianist Van Cliburn. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.