It didn't take long for the talk at this week's national work-life conference in Baltimore to turn to Yahoo Inc.
The Internet company's new ban on employees working from home has proved wildly unpopular with working mothers who had expected more support from CEO Marissa Mayer, a new mother herself. And during this week's conference, some professionals who help companies achieve workplace flexibility called the decision a misguided solution to a struggling company's woes.
Experts wondered whether progress in the workplace is being eroded, not just for working parents, but for all workers trying to cross the increasingly blurred lines between work and home life.
"We've finally come to a breaking point," said Cali Williams Yost, a flexibility strategy consultant who ran seminars at the Inner Harbor forum run by the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. "Without clocks and walls to tell us where work ends and life begins, we're lost. We've come to a point … of how do we make it work so businesses achieve their goals and objectives and people are able to manage their work and their life at the same time."
Employers should accommodate flexibility now more than ever, experts argued, because of advances in technology, an increasingly global economy, heavier workloads, longer commutes and growing family commitments as people care for children, aging parents or both. Besides telecommuting, flexibility can mean working four-day schedules, carving out space for kids in the office or other arrangements.
"What employees of all age groups want is the flexibility to determine for themselves where, when and how they work," said Kate Lister, president of research and consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics.
And that can be good for business, Lister and others said. She cited studies showing that allowing flexible work increased productivity and reduced turnover, overtime, absenteeism and real estate costs. A typical organization can save between $10,000 and $13,000 per half-time teleworker per year, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
The number of home-based workers has skyrocketed, growing 73 percent since 2005, the consulting firm said on its website TeleworkResearchNetwork.com. It said 3.1 million people, or 2.5 percent of the workforce, consider home their primary place of work, not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers. Even today's office-based workers are not always in; they're away from their desks 60 percent of the time, Lister said.
"Mayer's decision to pull in the troops has made huge headlines, but where Yahoo seems to have failed is in the execution of remote work," Lister said. "If they have no idea what their people are doing, or they find they aren't productive, they're obviously not managing by results."
The uproar started after an employee memo from Yahoo's human resources chief was leaked to Kara Swisher, a technology columnist and blogger for The Wall Street Journal. It informed Yahoo staffers they needed to appear at the office every day or lose their jobs.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," Jackie Reses, Yahoo's head of human resources, wrote in the Feb. 22 memo.
Mayer has not commented publicly on the reason for the change, and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo calls it an internal matter.
But in an email to The Baltimore Sun, a Yahoo spokeswoman said, "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now."
While work-life advocates say telework is here to stay, Yahoo is not the only Silicon Valley company discouraging or banning the practice. Mayer, one of only a few women leading Fortune 500 companies, had been an executive at Google, which is known for designing inviting work campuses that encourage team collaboration on site.
Work-life experts at this week's forum, attended by human resources representatives, consultants and others who implement flexibility programs, questioned why such policies need to be all-or-nothing. Within one company, for instance, telecommuting might work better for some employees, managers and divisions than for others.
"Barring telework is not going to promote teamwork, collaboration and caring about Yahoo," said Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor of HR management and organizational behavior at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management, who runs workshops to help employees and companies boost work-life effectiveness.
Kossek contends that getting the best work out of employees has little to do with whether they work at home or the office. Rather, it's about giving workers the control to manage boundaries between work and family and creating plans to become more effective in both worlds, she said.
Judi C. Casey, director of the Work and Family Researchers Network, said she chooses to work from her home north of Boston rather than at Boston College, her employer.
"It's a better use of time to not spend almost two hours commuting each day," Casey said. "I feel like I can do things during the day that I can't do while at the office. It might be a longer workday, but it feels more balanced."
In Kossek's workshops for businesses, governments and organizations, she starts by showing images of today's workplace: a man on a smartphone strolling down a supermarket aisle, people tapping on their laptops while sitting in a park. In her sessions, she describes a spectrum ranging from "separators," who keep home and work life apart, to "integrators," who work while at home and deal with home issues at work. She also identifies "cyclers," who shift between those ends of the spectrum based on needs and the pro and cons of each style.
"Technology makes it possible to work 24/7, and flexibility makes it easy to work all the time, but we need self-regulation or we won't get anything done," she told her participants at a Wednesday session.
The annual work-life conference, held this year at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court hotel, has become more popular each year as more companies focus on adapting to new ways of working, said Kathleen M. Lingle, executive director of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance for Work-Life Progress, a professional association for the work-life field and an affiliate of nonprofit WorldatWork.
"Work-life used to be for the big companies — the IBMs of the world," Lingle said, but now companies with 500 to 5,000 employees are putting work-life initiatives in place.
In addition to companies adapting, employees also need to take responsibility for the work-life balance equation, said Yost, who outlines ways to do that in her book "Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day."
"Yahoo felt people weren't using flexibility well," Yost said. "But sometimes the abuse isn't abuse. It's a lack of knowing how to use flexibility."