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Yahoo: A Telecommunication Breakdown?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it's been called a landmark in the American literary canon. Certainly it's one of the premier works of Chicano literature. Now it's finally made its way to the big screen. We are going to speak with its star, herself a well-loved pioneer among Latina actresses. Her name is Miriam Colon and she's with us in just a few minutes to tell us about "Bless Me, Ultima."

But first, you may have heard about the big decision by Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer to end telecommuting arrangements for employees. All employees who have been telecommuting have been asked to return to work in Yahoo offices beginning in June. The argument is that being in the office fosters collaboration and creativity.

But those who have been relying on telecommuting to balance their work and home lives, as you might imagine, are none too pleased. We wanted to talk more about this so we are - we have called David Duckenfield. He spent seven years working at Yahoo as the director of public relations to Latin America. He's now the president of his own PR firm, Balsera Communications. He's with us from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida. David, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID DUCKENFIELD: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us to crunch some of the numbers is Kate Lister. She's been tracking the data on working from home for a while now. She's president of Global Workplace Analytics. She's also co-author of the book "Undressed for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home." And she's with us from San Diego, California. Kate, thank you so much for joining us.

KATE LISTER: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So David, let me start with you because you spent seven years working at Yahoo. How big a part of the culture there is telecommuting?

DUCKENFIELD: Well, you know, it was a growing part of the culture when I was there. That was one of the things that attracted a lot of people to Yahoo, was the flexibility that it offered. The commute, for a lot of people going to Silicon Valley from north of there, from San Francisco, was pretty long. And as you can imagine, you know, an hour, two hours each way.

So the flexibility to be able to work from home or work remotely was very important and was definitely part of the culture, especially towards the end of the week, as it were.

MARTIN: And how - have you heard any reaction from your former colleagues?

DUCKENFIELD: Yeah. It's sort of gone from a muted reaction to ho-hum to the people who didn't really commute that much to - or telecommute that much to really, you know, people are upset about it and think that it was kind of a tone deaf or a blunt way of dealing with the issue. But you know, I think that Marissa Mayer felt that, you know, the culture needed a little bit of shaking up.

I think, you know, my take on it is that she was probably, you know, was coming into the office, didn't see a lot of cars there at 9:00 and then by 5:00 the parking lot was empty again. So I think she felt like, you know, I've got to shake this up and get people back to the workplace.

MARTIN: Kate, I think one of the reasons that this attracts so much attention - well, there are a number of reasons. Obviously Marissa Mayer being, I think, one of the youngest women CEOs in the country - one of the youngest CEOs, period - and also a woman and a number of things with her personally, but also because the tech world are considered pioneers in workplace arrangements. And I'd like to ask you, how widespread are the kinds of arrangements that we have associated with Yahoo, these kinds of telecommuting arrangements?

LISTER: Well, not just associated with Yahoo and the tech industry; it's really across industries, across the globe. It's grown at about 73 percent over the last five years. And yet only about two and a half percent of the U.S. population considers home their primary place of work. Unfortunately, there aren't really good numbers beyond those who consider it a primary place of work, so that's really all we have to work with.

And then other survey data suggests that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe 15 to 20 percent of the population works at home, works remotely more than about once a month.

MARTIN: What of the argument that I think - kind of the seat of their pants or stereotype that many people might have about telecommuting is that you're not really working.

LISTER: That's the big problem. And Forrester and Gartner and others have said, you know, half of the population is going to be doing this by 2016. Well, that's just not going to happen and largely because of the management culture. Managers just largely don't trust their employees. I mean that's the way it is. And yet there are companies that do these studies of occupancy. They go around the building with a clipboard.

They have these chairs that detects whether there's somebody sitting in them. It doesn't take a butt print, doesn't know who's sitting in it, but, you know, they know that there's somebody there. And across the board globally what they're finding is that people are only at their desk about 40 percent of the time. So that's big, big wastes of real estate that, you know, people are already gone.

They already left the building. And whether you call it tele-work or, you know, whether your people are 10 floors or 10 miles or 10 time zones away, we need to learn to manage in a different way. And that means managing by results, managing by what gets done. Not by looking at the back of people's heads.

MARTIN: David, what about her argument about collaboration, that - just that having people so spread out inhibits the kind of collaboration that creativity, esprit de corps, if you want to call it that, that she feels the company needs at this point in its history - based on your experience, does she have a point?

DUCKENFIELD: I think she definitely has a point and that's kind of what I've been thinking over the past, you know, week and a half or so since this happened, is that that's an important part of the Yahoo culture. It's an important part of the culture in the valleys, the collaborations, the whole, you know, it started in my garage with, you know, three folks sitting around with a great idea and collaborating.

But it's also, I think, going back to my original point, the instrument was a little bit blunt in the sense that, you know, this isn't a one-size-fits-all model. So I think for certain people who work - maybe the engineers - you know, who need to do some brainstorming and figure out a new algorithm or something, yeah, the collaboration point is well taken.

But there are other folks, obviously, who can just as well do the job from home, from Starbucks, or, you know, waiting for the cable guy. So - and I think that would be the point that I would make.

MARTIN: I think we really have to talk about gender here, Kate. And David, I do want to hear your perspective on this too. There are people who believe that telecommuting affects women more than men, that they are more likely to take advantage of flexible work arrangements so that they can balance, you know, other responsibilities.

And I particularly note kind of the gender piece given that CEO Mayer built herself a nursery in her office, with her own money, yes, but after she had her baby, who is still quite young. And so they look at this as kind of the privilege-taking that is then being denied to other women in the workplace. So, Kate, I have to ask, do we have any data on this? Do we know whether women are more likely to take advantage of these arrangements?

Is it perceived as a gender issue?

LISTER: Yeah. Well, I think it is perceived as a gender issue but the reality is that it's almost exactly 50/50 and the survey data actually suggests that men surveyed want more flexibility than women, or you know, want to have these flexible arrangements more than women, particularly young men.

And it's across generations. The number one non-financial benefit that job seekers are looking for is flexible work. So I mean she's really going against the tide. But I think that what needs to be said is it's not - I don't think this is a tele-work issue, a mobile work issue or anything. It's a management issue.

Sharon Wall at the U.S. General Services Administration - the federal government is really big into tele-work - and she said that tele-work doesn't create management problems; it reveals them. So if they've got managers that don't know what their people are doing, then fundamentally that's the problem. And I think she's right to, you know, bring them back in, get it all figured out, and then hopefully allow them some more flexibility.

But given Silicon Valley, I'm not sure that's going to happen.

MARTIN: David, a final thought from you, if you would, since public relations is your area of expertise. Can you - how do you think this is being handled from that perspective? On the one hand we're all certainly talking about it, which is interesting. People who care about these issues are sort of talking about it, which is interesting. And perhaps it shines a light on tele-work, the pluses and minuses. But overall, what do you think?

DUCKENFIELD: Yeah. To be honest, that was the number one thing that was kind of perplexing to me, was the way it was handled. I mean, in Silicon Valley if you send out a memo, it's just like sending out a press release to the, you know, entire news corps in the United States. So they must've known that this was going to get out.

And then having - the next day having to dial it back a little bit, saying - with another release, saying, hey, we didn't really want to get into this whole debate on, you know, working from home. And I work from home. This is something that Yahoo needed to do. But it was kind of obvious that they were going to get in that debate, for a number of reasons.

And number one, it's a big topic, you know, across the country, you know, telecommuting and with the growth in the cities and commutes. And number two, what you alluded to earlier, you know, like it or not, you know, she is the new CEO. She just had a baby. You know, she's a woman. That's going to come into the debate.

And then you have, you know, her colleague down the road in Mountain View, Sheryl Sandberg, who's the CEO of Google who's entered into this whole debate about women can have it all. They can do it. Whereas, you know, other folks on the other side of the country over at the State Department, I think Anne-Marie Slaughter was saying, you know, women can have it all.


DUCKENFIELD: So it was kind of obvious that this debate was going to be had once this news got out. So...

MARTIN: David Duckenfield is the former director of public relations to Latin America for Yahoo. He's now the president of the public relations firm Balsera Communications. Also with us, Kate Lister. She's the president of the workplace research firm Global Workplace Analytics and she's the co-author of the book "Undressed for Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home." Thank you both so much for joining us.

DUCKENFIELD: Thanks a lot.

LISTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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