Jonathan J. Higuera

Arizona’s telecommuting program

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telecommutingThe decision by Yahoo, Inc.’s chief executive officer, Marissa Mayer, to end its telecommuting program ignited a firestorm of controversy and criticism from the tech community, and it has also sparked a deeper look at telecommuting policies in general.

There is no disputing that many companies believe telecommuting is a viable option, both in terms of worker productivity and providing needed flexibility to attract and keep good workers. American Express, Best Buy, Dow Chemical and other companies have concluded that teleworkers can, indeed, be more productive than their peers in office cubicles.

Recent figures from the Telework Research Network show that about 3.15 million people worked primarily from home in 2011. The figure did not include the self-employed or unpaid volunteers. That’s an amazing increase of 73 percent from 2005, when about 1.82 million people considered themselves full-time telecommuters. In addition, another 16 million employees work at home at least one day per month.

One needs to look no further than the Arizona state government, which has been providing a telework option to some of its workers for the past two decades, to see a robust telecommuting program in place. In 1993, the state  established a telework program through an executive order. Back then, the main reason was to reduce employee travel in order to combat Maricopa County’s poor air quality.

In 1996, then-governor Fyfe Symington asked all state agencies to reach the goal of having 15 percent of its Maricopa County workforce telework and, in 2002, former governor Jane Dee Hull increased the goal to 20 percent.

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With the increasing acceptance of telecommuting, in 2003, former governor Janet Napolitano re-affirmed the 20 percent telework mandate and cited its value as a business strategy that increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and attracted quality employees to state service. By 2007, state agencies were reporting meeting this mandate for its Maricopa County workforce.

To combat the perception that home workers are getting a better deal than office workers, the state emphasizes that a teleworker’s arrangement can be ended at any time by a manager. The guidelines also make it clear that working from home doesn’t substitute for child care; workers with small children must make suitable child care arrangements.

As many teleworkers are surely aware, the work-at-home arrangement comes with drawbacks. Some studies indicate that home workers are more likely to be passed up for promotions and other forms of company recognition. It turns out that there is value in physical interaction with colleagues around the water cooler and in the hallways.

In Yahoo’s case, Mayer defended her move as necessary to stimulate innovation and creativity through collaboration. Yahoo faces dire times as a company and Mayer was brought in to turn around the company’s fortunes. Drastic times require drastic actions. However, there is no concrete evidence that better ideas come more often from a conference room than from a bedroom office.

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