THE OFFICE – Out goes my father’s century-old oaken roll-top and in comes a cheap gun-metal gray desk with Formica top and clanging steel drawers. I’ll put these sectional half-walls, replete with cute drawings by my youngsters, around three sides of the desk to partition off my cubicle from co-workers, whom I can rent. They will still bother me every six minutes with tales of their ex-spouses, deer hunts and the latest Aggie jokes.
I’ll need 12 phones all ringing at the same time nearly drowning the piped-in Muzak. The water cooler replaces the wet bar, obviously. Wonder if my new company has a Take Your Martini to Work Day? My kitchen can easily be turned into the office snack room with month-old leftovers in the refrigerator and cake from the Christmas party. The Microwave is much too clean. It needs baked-on chili and tuna melt. I should have a surly secretary who is only nice when Christmas bonuses are due.
You see, I work at home. Some 30 million Americans do, at least one day a week. But that may be ending because Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, has sent out an order to all her 20-year-olds who don their jeans, T-shirts and Nikes when they want to, and go to their basement to turn out the latest black box. Her order is: “Come back to the office.”
The company sent out a memo to all those thousands of Yahoos, as they call themselves, who work at home all or part of the time, or have flexible hours. The message said they needed to start showing up at Yahooville bright and early Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Mayer believes that face-to-face interaction among employ¬ees fosters a more collaborative culture. As the memo stated: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side.” If that work plan was good enough for Google, where Mayer worked before, it was good enough for her new employees.
Of course, working at the office is easy for her to say, and do. She took off only two weeks for the birth of her first child, then had a nursery built next to her office, at her own expense. That cost should not have been a financial burden. Mayer, 37 years old, makes $117 million during her five-year contract, and lives in the penthouse of San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Her order changing lifestyles is not going over very well with some workers, especially the young ones. But the CEO has support, because studies have shown that people who work at home are signifi¬cantly more productive yet less innovative. For a cutting-edge operation like Yahoo, innovation is all important. Hopefully, the nerd clusters will generate the so-called “water-cooler” phenomenon — many good ideas are hatched during those break-time moments of casual conversation.
In taking on the workers who take off, Yahoo has entered a complicated situation whereby more and more American workers want to do it their way, when they wish. Today with e-mails and iPads, instant messaging, Skype, Facetime and other devices workers use to avoid actually working, communicating and innovating, the number of stay-at-home employees is exploding, right? Not exactly. Considering all the technological breakthroughs, the trend is moving rather slowly. According to the U.S. Census, from 1997 to 2010 the number of people who worked at least one day a week at home only increased by about 4.2 million, or from 7 percent to 9.5 percent. The most popular days at home for those who work both at home and onsite were Monday and Friday. On my own block, at least three husbands/fathers never leave for the office. They got laid off counting stay-at-homes for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nearly half of home-based workers are self-employed. The 2012 National Study of Employers found that some 63 percent of companies allow — though not necessarily encourage — some employees to work a portion of their time remotely. That’s up from 34 percent in 2005. However, a few companies have tried the work-at-home plan and shucked it because clients want to meet face to face with employees. Bank of America decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office. Some jobs don’t lend themselves to staying at home. Fireman leaps to mind, and heart surgeon. Long-distance tree-trimming and calf-roping never caught on. Until recently, fighter pilots usually had to be on the scene, but drones have solved that problem. Do U.S. presidents work at home?
Something to consider: If you listen to Limbaugh or Hannity’s radio shows you hear these come-on ads aimed at the slow and gullible (their listeners) about working at home and doubling your income. It’s a rip-off. The exception is if you are working at other people’s homes while they are at work. First, check the closet floors for safes.
Then there is commuting, or lack thereof. I commute through the den, past the spa, the stables and the servants’ quarters – they work at my home. Non-commutering workers annually save between $1,600 and $6,800 and 15 days of time once used driving to work or taking public transportation. Yet researchers in Sweden found couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. Long commuters are also more likely to become fat. In 2006, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Alan Krueger surveyed 900 Texan women, asking them how much they enjoyed a number of common activities. Commuting came in dead last. First? Having sex. Yee-HAW! On the other hand, maybe your spouse really doesn’t want you working at home. For better or worse, but not for lunch
So good luck Yahoos. Like you, I want to be both more productive and more innovative. But most of the water-cooler conversations at my company are about last night’s ballgame, the latest dirty joke and/or should we poison or strangle Marissa Mayer.
Ashby works at firstname.lastname@example.org