Nation | Business

Stay-At-Home Workers Defend Choice After Yahoo Ban

NPR | March 1, 2013 10:51 a.m.

Contributed By:

Jennifer Ludden

Yahoo’s sweeping edict against telecommuting has been felt as a personal attack by some of the two-thirds of Americans who regularly work from home.

Lawyer Sharon Higgins of Washington, D.C., finds one line of the company memo outlining the policy change particularly offensive: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

For nearly a decade, Higgins has worked one day a week from the basement office in her rowhouse, where she takes pride in her work and is obsessed with efficiency.

“It’s a huge morale booster to be given that flexibility,” she says. “But it also, I think, conveys a sense of trust, and that we’re adults.”

On a recent morning Higgins was still in yoga pants, hair uncombed — signs of precious time saved. This makes getting her two kids to school a bit less chaotic. Then there’s the serious money saved by forgoing a dog walker, downtown parking and lunch out. And her home office is conveniently located next to the washer and dryer.

“This is my son’s bedspread,” she explains, pulling it out of the dryer. “The cat got sick last night. So rather than have it sit around all day with nastiness on it …” She trails off as her hands fly, folding the rest of the load.

Higgins also found the Yahoo memo hypocritical. Company CEO Marissa Mayer, a new mother, has paid to build a nursery right next to her executive suite, something Higgins says few women have the money or clout to do. And yet, as a feminist studies major, Higgins admits she is torn over the biting reaction to Mayer’s ban on telecommuting.

“It feels yucky to me to hear this story,” she says. “I’m not happy with it. But on the other hand, if she were a man, I think the tone would be slightly different.”

When Does The Workday End?

In New York, lawyer and mother of three Rebecca Hughes-Parker has worked part time at home for eight years. She found the Yahoo memo condescending.

“This kind of policy goes backwards in time,” she says, “to when you really had to be chained to a desk and didn’t have the flexibility to run to a child’s doctor’s appointment, answer emails on the way if you had to, and then come back. I think it’s very scary for people to think those things are going to be taken away from them.”

Like everyone interviewed for this piece, Hughes-Parker says of course she understands that face time is essential now and then. And sure, Yahoo’s telecommuting ban may be just what’s needed in a time of crisis. But she resents the implication that she’s slacking off when her boss can’t see her and wonders whether society should resurrect all the barriers between work and home.

“One of the things I thought when I read the memo,” Hughes-Parker says, laughing, “[was] ‘Well, if these people aren’t allowed to work from home, does that mean they don’t have to answer emails at night?’ “

Value Of Workplace Flexibility

A recent University of Iowa survey found those who work at home put in five to seven hours more time a week.

In fact, Yahoo’s move defies a larger trend. Businesses and public agencies are pushing telecommuting for all kinds of reasons, from saving money to reducing traffic. Last year, Australia’s prime minister committed to having 12 percent of that country’s public service regularly telework by 2020. What’s more, surveys show the youngest generation of workers values flexibility even more than money.

“I think there’s a lot of disappointment,” says work-at-home father Scott Behson, who runs the blog Fathers, Work and Family, where he has registered dismay over the ban. He also teaches management at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Behson says the only good thing about Yahoo’s move is the backlash to it.

“I’m encouraged by how much media attention this has gotten,” he says, “and that there’s been, in many quarters, a kind of questioning of this decision, showing that maybe the time is right for full public debate on the value of workplace flexibility.”

In the long run, Behson doesn’t think Yahoo’s telecommuting ban will survive that debate.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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