For a decade, companies of all sizes embraced the idea that allowing employees
to work from home would make for more happy, productive workers and, at the
same time, save companies money on the cost of office space.
Now, a major Silicon Valley employer -- Yahoo! -- is abruptly reversing course. Its new chief executive Marissa Mayer is ending Yahoo!'s work at home program in June, according to an internal personnel memo obtained by the Wall Street Journal. Sources within the company tell the Journal that the directive not only affects those who work at home full-time, such a service representatives, but those who may work from home just a day or two.
"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," reads the memo to Yahoo! employees. "We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with being physically together."
In Connecticut, Hartford-based health insurance giant Aetna Inc. has about 3,000 of its 7,000 employees in the state working from home, most of them on a full-time basis.
Aetna said the program has worked well for the insurer, but it will nonetheless keep an eye on how the changes unfold at Yahoo! and elsewhere.
"This is another trend, another data point to watch," Aetna spokeswoman Susan Millerick said. "We're going to stay status quo, but we always watch what is going on in the marketplace."
Aetna's workplace strategy hinges heavily on its telecommuting program, known as Telework. In 2005, 9 percent of Aetna's U.S. workforce worked from home. In the next decade, the number grew to 47 percent, at the end of last year.
The insurer estimates that it now needs 2.7 million square feet less of office space, saving $78 million in operating costs.
In Connecticut, the closing and demolition of Aetna's massive, 1.3-million-square-foot campus in Middletown contributed to a significant increase in Telework employees in the state.
The majority of Aetna Telework employees are in customer service and claims processing. All departments are represented and include attorneys, underwriters and actuaries.
The Yahoo! reversal is attention grabbing because it does away completely with the program. But at least one other major employer -- Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, Connecticut's largest bank -- started tightening up its program at the end of last year.
A Bank of America spokeswoman said Monday she couldn't provide specifics of the program. Last December, the Charlotte Observer reported that some new employees might not be eligible to work from home until they had worked for the bank for a year. Others could lose the option altogether, the newspaper said.
Workplace experts said Monday that companies can certainly reap benefits from employees working at home: cheaper operating costs; the chance to hire the most desirable employees even if they don't live close to an office; and saving on commuting time for those that are near an office.
"The risks to companies are the loss of control over that person's output and quality, loss of group innovation and a loss of the tie to the organization," John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said.
Employees benefit from a more flexible work schedule, making it easier to balance their personal and professional lives, Challenger said. But it can also mean that employees may work more hours than they would have if they were in an office, he said.
Millerick said Aetna has a set of criteria determining who qualifies for Telework. In addition to online training, an employee's manager must agree that the worker is qualified and is "self-motivated and knows productivity standards," Millerick said.
"Not everyone is made for Telework," Millerick said.
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