Will Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo ban on work at home increase productivity? New research suggests not

In the selfish spirit of one who works at home quite a bit, I’m tempted to pile on with all the other telecommuters to spew vitriol at Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer for requiring all Yahoo employees to come to work every day—no exceptions, even to wait for the cable guy.

Boston.com parenting blogger Kara Baskin called Mayer “snobbish, one-dimensional, and out-of-touch.” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus came close to calling Mayer a hypocrite for building a nursery at work that adjoins her office—providing on-demand access to baby—but not allowing her employees to work from home when their kids are sick.

Workers with flextime in the Boston area also expressed their outrage to Globe reporter Beth Teitell, saying they don’t want the time-suck of the daily commute and to miss family dinners when they’re far more productive at home and log more hours.

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The Yahoo memo from HR head Jackie Reses to employees suggests otherwise: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” reads the memo, which was posted by a blogger at AllThingsD.

Is that really the case? Does working from home actually lead to more distractions and a shirking of responsibilities, or does it lead to more productive and emotionally satisfied workers?

There’s actually not a lot of evidence to make the case either way. Coincidentally, one of the first controlled experiments on this question was published at around the same time the memo was leaked late last week.

It came out against Mayer’s new proposition.

The Stanford University study of 249 call center workers at a Chinese travel agency found that those who were randomly selected to work from home four days a week for nine months—after they volunteered to do so—experienced a 13 percent increase in their work performance.

The improvement came mainly from a 9 percent increase in the number of minutes worked during their shifts due to a reduction in breaks and sick-days taken. The remaining 4 percent came from an increase in the number of calls home workers took per minute worked, compared with those in the control group who weren’t selected to work at home.

Home workers also had more job satisfaction and were also less likely to quit their positions during the study. And the company saved about $2,000 per year for each employee who worked at home. (Reduced costs is one of the reasons federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health have strongly encouraged employees to work at home at least one day each week.)

Despite all of these work gains, however, the study also found an important downside to working at home: It reduced rates of promotion by 50 percent when measured against job performance. While those who worked at home had about the same number of promotions as those who worked on site, they should have had more considering how much extra work they performed.

“One story that is consistent with this is that home-based employees are ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ wrote the Stanford economists who conducted the study. “As a result supervisors did not notice their performance as much and were less likely to promote them. We heard anecdotal evidence for this from employees and managers.”

Working at home also means less interpersonal contact with the boss and other employees and less opportunity to brainstorm ideas, which could have been Mayer’s rationale for eliminating the practice. There are certain intangible productivity benefits that come from face-to-face interactions, which the researchers admitted couldn’t be measured in the study.

Still, I think the results are compelling, and I hope more studies like this one are conducted to provide guidance for office managers and CEOs. Mayer could have easily sent a clear message about the importance of being physically present without taking such a draconian approach—perhaps limiting employees to working at home one day a week.

If the new study is any indication, the result of the new policy will likely be that she’ll lose many prized work-at-home folks to companies that offer more flexibility and compassion for their workers.