In Defense of Marissa Mayer's Telecommuting Ban

Yahoo!'s announcement that employees can no longer work remotely reminds us we need face-to-face interaction.

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This image released by NBC shows Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appearing on NBC News' "Today" show, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 in New York to introduce the website's redesign. Yahoo is renovating the main entry into its website in an effort to get people to visit more frequently and linger for longer periods of time. The long-awaited makeover of Yahoo.com's home page is the most notable change to the website since the Internet company hired Marissa Mayer as its CEO seven months ago. The new look will start to gradually roll out in the U.S early Wednesday.

Yahoo!'s recent edict banning telecommuting for employees has become a minor scandal, largely because to many, it seems an incongruous move for an Internet company. A fussy law firm seems like the kind of place that would insist its workers do their jobs on-site. Yahoo! sounds like the kind of place that would not only encourage telecommuting, but be working on software that would allow people's avatars to do their grunt work while the real people go out and find new financing. Plus, the new CEO, Marissa Mayer, is the first person to be hired as a major company CEO while she was pregnant—and she came back to work two weeks after her child was born.

Her directive sounds blasphemous to new parents, especially some new mothers who understandably would want more flexibility with their family and job schedules. And true, it does seem that the edict was a bit absolutist. But it might not be as backwards as it sounds. In fact, there's something refreshingly retro about the idea that things work better when people actually talk to each other in person.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Technology is great; it helps us do things more efficiently and cheaper. But it has also led to a breakdown in human interaction that is bad not only for humankind in general, but for business. Look at Congress, fighting like junkyard dogs. Part of it is that they are ideologically divided. A bigger part of it is that they're spending so much time away from each other that they have failed to develop the human relationships necessary to make compromises. C-SPAN means they don't need to be on the floor to listen to their colleagues debate. Speedy air travel means they can go back to the home district every long weekend—mainly to raise money. Facebook is a great way to keep in touch, but it also enables bullies who otherwise might not have the nerve to intimidate a classmate face-to-face.

Telecommuting is a mixed bag. It can help people balance work and home life. It can also give employers the idea that workers are some sort of indentured servants, available 24/7 to work. Perhaps the idea of everyone showing up for work at 9 and then leaving at 5 (now, of course, much later than 5) was sort of quaint. But there was something nice about going home when it actually meant going home—and not being at work.

It's unreasonable and nonsensical for companies to refuse telecommuting under any circumstances; if someone needs to be home with a sick kid, or to wait for the cable woman, or even to work from home one day a week for other purposes, that's reasonable. But our society and our businesses will not benefit from a system under which people don't interact with each other face-to-face.

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