Telecommuting No More at Comverse (and Yahoo)

by Brian on March 21, 2013

in In the News

Marissa_MayerYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was in the news last month after she announced that the company she heads will no longer support telecommuting. Starting June 1, employees who work from home, all or part of the time, will be asked to report to the office. If they don’t, too bad. The company is even discouraging flextime.

The reason? “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” reads Mayer’s memo to staff.

Did Mayer start a trend? Yahoo says no. According to a company spokesperson, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.”

But at least one company closer to home has jumped on the anti-telecommute bandwagon: the beleaguered Israeli hi-tech powerhouse Comverse. A memo from human resources vice president Kathy Harris sent to all employees last week said, “We’re finding that a number of employees are not coming regularly to the offices. Comverse team members are required to perform their roles in local Comverse offices. It’s important to connect with your colleagues and managers. Face-time is vital; it helps build trust.”

That was exactly the opposite message some employees received, though. One Comverse staffer told the Israeli business magazine Globes that not only did it indicate Comverse didn’t trust its people, but that the decision “will unnecessarily rattle nerves and raise objections.”

The Comverse announcement touched a nerve that’s still raw for me. In 2001, I was hired as a VP myself by the company. Since I live in Jerusalem, I told my new boss that I could only accept the job if he’d let me work from home one day a week and flex my hours the others, so that I’d both arrive and leave late. I’d work the same number of hours but avoid the crazy two-plus hours each way commute from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where Comverse is located.

Three days after I started, my boss quit. I was given three months to “interview” internally to find a new job, which I eventually did. But my new supervisor was less than pleased with my telecommuting “arrangement,” although he still honored it. Even so, when my time was up at Comverse after three years, the cumulative hours of even non-peak time commuting added up to some 1,800 hours spent in the car. I’m frazzled thinking about it even today. I vowed never to commute again and have thankfully been working a “30-second” commute upstairs at home ever since.

Now, there is certainly truth to the argument that casual conversations often lead to innovation. It’s one of the reasons that spending $50,000 to get a college education in person is more powerful than doing three to four years alone online. But does it have to be an all or nothing approach?

“A variety of studies show that telecommuting and working from home is associated with higher productivity,” says David Lewin, a management professor at UCLA, in an article on the Yahoo pronouncement published in Forbes. “Analytically, it’s not at all clear this would benefit Yahoo. They could wind up with negative performance effects.” To emphasize the point, a 2011 study by WorldatWork found that companies with stronger cultures of flexibility experienced lower turnover and increased employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.

“It comes from fear,” says Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, also quoted in the Forbes article. “Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

It’s hard to quibble with human perception. I knew that I was in front of my computer until 9:00 PM every night at Comverse, but I wouldn’t begrudge my co-workers for suspecting I was leaving right after the 7:00 PM tuna and egg salad sandwiches were delivered to the break rooms.

The whole discussion gives me the chills for another reason. I am a firm believer in maintaining a work/life balance. Slaving away insane hours, even at a job you love, just can’t be healthy. I know that, despite the flextime, my hi-tech life at Comverse didn’t allow me to spend enough time with my family and I missed out on too many school plays and parent teacher meetings (well, maybe that was a good thing…)

But when I raise the work/life balance issue, I am often countered with the argument that if you want to get ahead in business, you can’t have it all. Look at Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. She was pregnant when she hired, and took all of two weeks maternity leave.

We don’t all have to be Marissa Mayer’s though. Maybe it’s OK to take a slower track through life. And maybe that’s not for everyone either. Either way, I’m not ready to concede the war against telecommuting as a generalized Truth. I’ll look at it as a hopefully temporary throwback to a less compassionate time, one that’s not surprising given the financial difficulties both Yahoo and Comverse have been in. I’m planning on continuing to work from home. I just hope I don’t end up alone in this grand experiment.

This article first appeared on Israelity.

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