On Telecommuting, Best Buy Looks To Yahoo For Leadership Vision. *Gulp*

Pity the poor telecommuter. Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) has followed the lead of one-time search engine leader Ya("Let's get a Ouija board and figure out this month's business plan")Hoo and sharply pulled back from its corporate telecommuting program. Best Buy killed a program called the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), which allowed some 4,000 Best Buy HQ staff to work from home or the road.

The Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) move to yank telecommuters back to HQ was based on new CEO—and current Walmart (NYSE:WMT) board member—Marissa Mayer's review of VPN records, presumably suggesting that a lot of workers weren't checking in very often. Hopefully, Mayer had a lot more evidence to go on, because workers might have been performing their jobs fully without having to check into the network routinely. But the problem with both the Yahoo and Best Buy changes is that, if we take the statements from both companies at face value, they are doing this to get better controls in place. If that's the case, then workers are being punished because of poor management procedures and, most likely, poor managers.

In general, telecommuting programs have delivered tons of advantages to retailers, including more motivated workers, better retention, longer hours delivered for the same dollars, less wear-and-tear on employees, huge savings in HQ real estate costs, etc. Then there are the societal benefits, such as lower gas usage, less pollution, fewer cars makes less traffic, etc.

But are those benefits especially beneficial today to Yahoo and Best Buy? Reduction in real estate costs? No problem. Recent layoffs mean plenty of empty offices. Better retention? The more people who choose to quit, the fewer layoffs (and the less severance pay) have to be funded. (Of course, this method means that the chain will likely lose its most talented people to rivals, but such is life.)

The official position from both companies is that during periods of major corporate upheaval, it's important for everyone to be in physical proximity. That happens to be true, if your management structure is weak and your managers are poor communicators. Otherwise, hold more meetings. But when it's time for your troops to go off and create that which everyone agrees must be created, is it not better to have them do it in the most efficient environment possible?

Both companies have stressed that there will be exceptions. (Somehow, when Yahoo CEO Mayer's child is in school and has to come home sick, methinks one of those exceptions will be approved.) Those exceptions will follow corporate policy, which is clearly now to discourage telecommuting.

Are there employees who abuse telecommuting? Absolutely. But a decent structure will make it impossible to not get caught. What if a worker at an HQ building locked her door and made personal phone calls for seven hours a day? Or if some supervisor left the building and took five-hour lunch breaks? Or if a programmer played computer games all day? Would the conclusion from those experiences be that this HQ-staffing effort has failed and that everyone must telecommute? Or would it be that these employees are not doing their jobs and need to be disciplined and possibly fired?

I'm reminded of the early days of the Web, when media reports blamed the big bad Internet for pedophile crimes. Funny, I don't recall stories about obscene phone calls suggesting that it's the phone's fault and that obscene calls are the reason why phones should be ripped out of homes.

The Best Buy telcommuting program was called the Results Only Work Environment for a very good reason: It focused on delivering results. And as long as results were delivered, the company considered it irrelevant how it happened. That's being replaced by a program that focuses not on results but on getting bodies at headquarters.

One theory that has surfaced is that a company with poor management procedures may be unable to adequately document performance failures. By bringing everyone to the office, HR specialists will have an easier time documenting shortcomings and to then terminate those employees who don't measure up.

If management and communication skills are so bad that such a drastic move is needed, those terminations should be widespread.

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