I had refrained from commenting on Marissa Mayer's anti-telecommuting edict because it seemed like every human with a blog or a Twitter handle had already done so. Today, though, I read an interesting piece in the FT by John Kay, who compared telecommuting to Robert Moses's proposed clearances in midtown Manhattan and the mooted Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Now, I work from home quite often myself - after all, I am near Milan and my boss is in Boston, so it's not as if I have an immediate need to be in the office every day. Skype works about as well from my home office as it does from my employer's office in Milan. All the same, I do try to go into the office every ten days or so. Partly this is for the prosaic reason that we are not yet an entirely paperless office, and I have to submit physical receipts for my expenses, but partly I go into the office for the serendipitous conversations which often arise from doing that.
This is where I am reminded of the downside of being in the office. In common with most offices, my desk is in an open space with lots of other desks, separated by waist-high partitions. This is not exactly an environment conducive to being able to concentrate. In fact, when all those desks are filled, I'm doing well if I can hear myself think! This means that the office is where I go to have impromptu conversations and face-to-face meetings, but it's not where I am most productive, even with my headphones on. I am much more productive at home, in aeroplanes, or in hotel rooms without distractions. John Kay's negative scenario of a corridor of closed office doors is actually a dream for me! Meet up in the cafe area, or open your door if you're available, but have the ability to close it if you're trying to concentrate.
I would hate to work only remotely, though, and seize every opportunity for gatherings of our little team. With members spread across all of the US, plus me in Europe, we try to meet up once a quarter or so, but those are usually fantastic brainstorming sessions where we really plan out our activities. Some companies like Cisco push the telepresence thing to extremes, even having their yearly kick-off meetings via telepresence. Given that some of the most useful conversations I have at kick-offs and the like have happened in bars and between sessions, I think this is rather short-sighted, although I don't doubt that there are attractive savings from doing things this way.
A healthy combination of alone time and together time works best, at least for my workflow. Most of my desk time is spent building or reviewing content, which requires concentration and does not really benefit from face-to-face interaction. If you are doing something that really does require constant interaction with colleagues in your geographical area, then perhaps going into the office every day really is best.
Finally, some people will always take advantage. I remember the story of one engineer who would tell one salesperson he was with another when he was actually with neither. Finally he got fired for this, and the luckless person tasked with cleaning out his laptop found tons of, um, not-safe-for-work content... One opinion is that Marissa Mayer, being very data-driven, unearthed a lot of this slot of behaviour, perhaps based on VPN logins and such. Given that situation, the right option probably is indeed a very public crackdown, followed by a quiet return to a more flexible approach once the Augean stables have been cleaned out.
The more over-the-top pronouncements against Marissa Mayer are probably overblown, but even if they are not, this is the beauty of the capitalist system. It's not like working at Glorious State Web Company 319; I hear that Northern California has a couple of other web firms which might be willing to accommodate workers who prefer to be home-based. If it's that important to you, make your choices based on that.