Yahoo's relatively new CEO Marissa Mayer has already proved she is not afraid to tackle difficult issues at the embattled internet giant that is struggling to prove its relevance in the Web 2.0 social world.
But this week's internal message to employees that working from home is to come to an end at the former dotcom darling has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.
I'll leave the debate about the rights and wrongs of the announcement to others: suffice to say that it may be more symptomatic of low morale at Yahoo and a working culture gone completely haywire than a fundamental philosophical statement on the concept of flexible working.
Indeed, Yahoo's statement, “This isn't a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now," tends to back this up.
This is a hot topic in PR circles, especially in an industry where around 70% of the workforce are women, and whether we like it or not women still take a higher amount of responsibility for childcare duties.
But the issue extends beyond that salient factor and speaks to the very nature of work and its place in our lives, especially as far as young people are concerned.
Networking giant Cisco annually conducts a study of the relationship between young people and technology, called the Cisco Connected World Technology Report.
Even in 2010 the study showed 35% of the US Gen Y generation did not feel it was necessary to be in an office to be productive and 60% said they never, or only occasionally, needed to be in the office to be productive.
Gen Y feels so strongly about this that 52% said they would take a lower paying job with more workplace flexibility than a higher paying job with less flexibility – assuming the two offers were from otherwise similar employers. They would actually forego a higher salary for a more flexible job.
In the Bay Area, there is also an issue for some companies in attracting younger staff who live in San Francisco to do the daily shuttle bus commute down to Silicon Valley. Companies such as Twitter, Pinterest, Square, Yelp, and Salesforce are benefiting in this respect from having their HQs in the city.
In Cisco's case, and clearly the company sells IT collaboration products so it has some skin in this game, 40% of its corporate PR team is not based in its San Jose HQ. It has staff members in Boston, Portland, Washington DC, Vancouver, Atlanta and Chicago – and many of Cisco's regular staff works from home on a regular basis, on average 1 to 2 days a week.
As I have discovered in my time here, on the West Coast the working day is a more flexible beast anyway, given that the East is up and running 3 hours earlier. Many working moms in communications – and an increasing number of working dads – will start early, take an hour or two to get the kids ready and take them to school, work through until school pickup time, collect the kids and make them dinner, then finish the day with a couple more hours work. The 9-5 culture is not so ingrained anymore.
The flip side of the coin is that there are undoubted benefits, especially for younger team members, in being around colleagues and learning from watching and listening to them work. This is certainly the case in a newsroom environment, where young reporters can hear the way senior colleagues handle stories over the ‘phone and have their writing and ‘phone manner assessed and honed by their editors.
This is also the case with PR pros, especially in the realm of media relations. And there's a lot to be said for the benefits and morale created by a communal and productive team environment. But even here, where 9 out of 10 calls can easily end at a voicemail message, more and more communication is being carried out electronically – and instant messaging can cultivate a team environment wherever people are located.
I suspect the flexible working genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and will never be forced back in. I also believe that if Marissa Mayer can fix the working culture at Yahoo and build a productive and collaborative working environment she will reintroduce flexible working down the line.