SAN FRANCISCO (USATODAY) -- Almost 10% of U.S. workers do their jobs from home at least one day a week, so news that tech giant Yahoo will end the practice in June surprised many.
"It's the only thing that has made our lives remotely possible and affordable and sort of possible to raise kids," says Lopa Pal, 36. She is the donor relations officer of the Greenbelt Alliance, a conservation group in the San Francisco Bay Area. When her second child was born, she wanted more flexibility and discussed it with her executive director.
"Literally his words were, 'I don't care if you do your work from a beach in Tahiti, just get it done and raise three-quarters of a million dollars a year,'" she says.
She switched to working from home two days a week and over the past four years has kept on target with fundraising while being able to schedule time with her children, 4 and 8, and her husband, a chef. That flexibility has kept her in her current job for eight years, even though she figures she could probably make more money and move up if she went elsewhere. It's made her an "extremely loyal employee," she says.
Yahoo's decision is meant to foster collaboration, according to a company memo sent to employees Friday.
Yahoo's head of human resources, Jackie Reses, wrote that communication and collaboration will be important as the company works to be "more productive, efficient and fun." To make that happen, she said, "it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings."
Yahoo does "not comment on internal matters," spokewoman Lauren Armstrong said via e-mail Monday.
The struggling Internet icon burned through four CEOs and shed thousands of workers in the few years preceding the appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO last year. Her appointment gained further notoriety when she disclosed that she was pregnant at the time of her hiring.
Mayer has since whipped the company into shape -- the stock price is up about 50% -- with a series of executive changes and acquisitions. Her latest edict is motivated, in part, by a desire to improve productivity among Yahoo employees who work from home and to weed out unproductive workers, according to a former Yahoo employee who recently departed for another job. He asked not to be identified because his current employer works with Yahoo.
Authors Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler -- who wrote Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix it: A Results-Only Guide to Taking Control of Work, Not People -- say Mayer is making a mistake.
"Mayer has taken a giant leap backward," they said in a joint statement. "Instead of keeping great talent, she is going to find herself with a workplace full of people who are good at showing up and putting in time vs. a workforce that could most effectively and efficiently drive the business forward in the 21st century."
The number of people who work at home has been increasing steadily, according to the U.S. Census:
• In 2010, 9.5% of the U.S. workforce worked from home at least one day a week.
• About 25% of those workers were in management, business or finance.
• People who work at home usually work the same hours as those in an office.
• Boulder, Colo., has the highest percentage of people working from home most of the week: 10.9%.
More companies are encouraging telecommuting, and the U.S. government is promoting it, to cut down on commute times, decrease traffic congestion, require less space at offices and let employees work flexible hours.
Silicon Valley companies such as Yahoo have been well-known for relaxed, employee-friendly policies on scheduling and other perks.
According to a survey by WorldatWork, a non-profit human resources association, seven to eight of every 10 people surveyed said the flexibility to work at home was "a positive or extremely positive effect" on their job engagement, motivation and satisfaction.
Yahoo's decision makes sense for Yahoo but not for many other companies, says Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., who studies workplace innovation.
"Yahoo is one messed-up company right now. The culture is in awful shape -- values, loyalty, you name it. Marissa (Mayer, new CEO) inherited a complete mess," Wadhwa says. By bringing everyone in-house, she'll be able to reprogram the company's work culture while also easily jettisoning a lot of deadwood employees who aren't doing much now. You can't do that weed-and-feed with people at home."
Working at home is very popular in Silicon Valley, he says, but it works best when the work being done has well-defined outcomes such as reports completed, computer code written or sales made. It doesn't work for innovative jobs where it's all about brainstorming. "If they're writing computer code, they have clearly defined deliverables," he says.
Yahoo's move goes against the trend of employers offering the option of working from home and other flexible working arrangements, says Lisa Horn, who co-chairs the Workplace Flexibility Initiative of the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization of human resource officers based in Alexandria, Va. The number of employers who offer telecommuting rose from 34% in 2005 to 63% last year, according to its surveys.
To make sense, workplace flexibility has to be effective for both the employer and the employee, Horn says.
"At the end of the day, Yahoo has made the decision that perhaps it's no longer workable for the business," she says. However, she noted that social media have been full of news about other tech firms eager to poach Yahoo employees by touting their flexibility as a competitive advantage.
A common perception is that people who work from home are often parents of young children. However, Horn says, the Millennial generation, people 30 and younger, are much more likely to choose it.
"They're used to working how, where and when they want," she says. "They may have done their best work at school at very strange hours and in very strange environments, and a rigid schedule and cubical conformity may not work for them."
Overall, companies have found that working from home full time doesn't work as well as working at least one or two days a week in the office, Horn says. That seems to be necessary to keep the lines of communication "open and strong and to maintain relationships within the organization," she says.
Next week, March 4 through 8, is Telework Week, an annual global effort that encourages companies to telework to improve productivity, reduce traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, and aid in personnel retention. Last year more than 71,000 people pledged to work from home at least one day during the week, which saved $5,651,890 on commuting costs, kept 3,453 tons of pollutants from the air and resulted in 6,413,006 fewer miles being driven, according to Mobile Work Exchange, the business that supports the effort.