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Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley. (LUTHER CAVERLY)
Carleton University economics professor Frances Woolley. (LUTHER CAVERLY)

FRANCES WOOLLEY

Work from home: Women may want it, but not many get it Add to ...

Female CEOs, feminists have long argued, would “promote much needed changes in the business world.” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is indeed making changes: the company is abolishing its work at home policy.

Conventional wisdom says that telecommuting is good for both workers and employers. For example, a widely cited paper by Ravi Gajendran and David Harrison in the Journal of Applied Psychology concludes that workers who telecommute are more productive, have greater job satisfaction, and fewer work-family conflicts. So why does Ms. Mayer believe restricting telecommuting will improve Yahoo’s performance?

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Most studies of telework do not account for the impact telecommuters have on other employees. A secret pleasure of telecommuting is avoiding colleagues. As the title of one scholarly article puts it: “Why Teleworkers are More Satisfied with Their Jobs than are Office-Based Workers: When Less Contact is Beneficial.” An even greater benefit is avoiding meetings. Yet while the teleworker who avoids meetings entirely – or who attends via conference call, puts the phone on mute, and spends the meeting catching up on email – is doubtless highly productive, her behavior will impact other workers.

I suspect that Ms. Mayer believes that, with fewer people working at home, it will be easier to schedule meetings, and get people to come to them. People will interact more, and bounce ideas off each other. Morale, cohesion, effectiveness, and productivity will increase.

Ms. Mayer may be right. Yet even if she is, and Yahoo’s employees will be more productive when they can meet face to face, what does her decision to end telecommuting say to those who believe that female CEOs can improve the lot of women? Is she just another Queen Bee, climbing to the top and then pulling the ladder up behind her?

The flexibility to work at home may be something that lots of women want. But it’s not something that a lot of women get. A Statistics Canada study found that men are actually more likely to work at home than women – 20 per cent of men work from home, as compared to 18 per cent of women. A recent article published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics questioned the idea that people use telework to reduce work-family conflicts, noting that parents are no more likely to work from home than non-parents.

Ms. Mayer may be seen by some as trampling on women’s legitimate desires for work-life balance. Yet there is an alternative story that could be told. In both Canada and the U.S., the typical telecommuter is a management or professional worker with a university degree. Perhaps Ms. Mayer’s initiative is aimed at preventing mostly male, telecommuting software engineers from delegating all administrative jobs to mostly female, work-in-the-office administrators and managers?

When a collegial, creative, sensible or helpful person comes into the office, he or she creates positive externalities – unpriced benefits – for co-workers. When that person stays at home, they produce negative externalities – a closed door, an empty space, a crackling conference call connection. The classic economic solution to externalities is to subsidize positive externalities and tax negative ones.

Yahoo has done already tried to encourage people to come into the office with subsidies in the form of free lunches. Yet no amount of free food and fab swag will induce people to come into work if the environment is poisoned by fear of lay-offs, fear of Google, and a sense that the enterprise is doomed. The real challenge facing Ms. Mayer is changing Yahoo into a company where people want to be, not forcing people to show up at meetings.

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University

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