The major Internet company's ban on telecommuting has ruffled feathers in Silicon Valley and sparked a larger debate on the role of physical proximity in an increasingly digital workplace.
But most of all Yahoo! is bucking a longstanding trend toward more telecommuting and, in the process, setting itself up as a company that's less "green." The wonder is that Yahoo! isn't the only tech giant to favor face-to-face interaction despite the energy saving potential of telecommuting. Some of the companies at the forefront of the digital revolution – who are making virtual communication easier for billions of workers – are themselves old-fashioned when it comes to work arrangements.
“The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’" Google CFO Patrick Pichette said at a talk last week in Australia, "And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’ … There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”
That's sparking a debate about the future of telecommuting.
"It struck a deep chord, contrary as it was to the techno-utopian impulse that has helped define Silicon Valley: the idea that someday soon we'll all be working in coffee shops or at kitchen tables, with broadband connections replacing in-person interactions," wrote Raymond Fisman, professor of social enterprise at the Columbia Business School, in CNN.
As of June 2011, there were roughly 2.9 million telecommuters in the US, according to the Telework Research Network (TRN), a telecommuting consulting and research firm group based in San Diego. Those stay-at-home workers save an annual 390 million gallons of gas and prevent the release of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases, TRN says.
The portion of workers who telecommute has grown in recent years and is expected to continue to grow. Regular telecommuters will total 4.9 million by 2016, TRN finds, a 69 percent increase from the current level.
If all 50 million US employees who TRN deem "telework-compatible" were to work from home 2.4 days a week, the savings would total over $900 billion a year, according to TRN. That's enough to reduce our Persian Gulf oil imports by 46 percent, the firm says.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says about 24 percent of Americans work at least some hours each week from home.
Yahoo! had 11,500 employees at the end of 2012. No figures were immediately available for what percentage of Yahoo! employees currently work from home. Presumably, that number will dwindle as it swells elsewhere in the US.