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Richard Branson blasts Mayer’s telework stand at Yahoo

File photo Sir Richard Branson on March 6, 2012.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The outspoken founder of Virgin Group PLC has stepped into the debate over letting employees work from home, calling mandatory office hours for all workers a sign of "old school thinking."

On the Virgin company blog, Richard Branson came out in favour of letting employees choose where and how they work, instead of forcing all workers to come to the office. Mr. Branson's comments come a week after Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer ignited a debate on the issue by announcing that the company she heads will no longer allow anyone to telecommute. A few days later, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said he agreed with Ms. Mayer's decision, calling telecommuting "one of the dumber ideas I've ever heard."

However Mr. Branson, long known for his unorthodox managerial style, disagrees.

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"The key for me is that in today's world I do not think it is effective or productive to force your employees one way or another. Choice empowers people and makes for a more content work force," he wrote.

"In 30 years time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed."

Ms. Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo took many industry observers by surprise, in large part because Internet-focused firms tend to have exactly the kind of infrastructure that facilitates working from outside the office. But the larger debate over telecommuting has become deeply polarizing in the business world.

Some companies, such as Telus, have embraced the concept, citing advantages including reduced time in traffic, better work-life balance and lower real estate costs. Other companies, including Google, don't ban the practice, but spend millions on in-office perks such as cafeterias, gyms and lounges in an effort to keep employees satisfied with (and spending more time in) the office.

However, not all big companies are as eager to see their employees leave the workplace, and the vast majority of Canadian employees continue to work from a traditional office.

Instead of banning or embracing the concept completely, some companies have instead opted for a more middle-ground approach. At Bell Canada, for example, a marketing group with the company's residential services team was recently asked to start working primarily in the office, rather than from home.

"The group's management decided an environment promoting face-to-face contact and quick development of project work groups would work better than the existing approach, which had some in the office but a large number working at various home locations," Bell spokesman Mark Langton said.

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But at the same time, Bell is also experimenting with telecommuting in other parts of its operations. A new program at the company, called At Home Agents, sets up call-centre representatives with the equipment they need to do their jobs from home.

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