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Nonprofit HR’s Blog

By Lisa Brown Morton

Marissa Mayer made her fair share of controversial moves during her first year as CEO of Yahoo, but none raised more eyebrows than her decision to eliminate the company’s once popular telecommuting program. And for good reason. As a veteran of the HR industry, I can confidently say that Mayer’s decision to prohibit telecommuting among her employees is hurting her already ailing company. It’s time for Mayer to bring telecommuting back, and its time for nonprofit leaders to recognize the important lesson they can learn from her misstep.

Unlike some of her critics, I don’t disagree with with Mayer’s decision to push the reset button at Yahoo. The company’s culture clearly needed an overhaul, and Mayer has made many bold shifts that have had a positive impact on the organization. Nonprofits of all sizes and missions could benefit from taking a page out of Mayer’s book and making the brave move to revamp their own cultures when it becomes clear that old practices are no longer effective.

However, terminating Yahoo’s work-from-home culture is one shift I simply can’t get behind. Flexibility is one of the most important determinants of employee satisfaction and retention, and with a comeback on the line, Yahoo can’t afford to burn bridges with its talent.

As I see it, there isn’t a corporation, small business or nonprofit out there that can afford to ignore employee demand for workplace flexibility. In fact, nonprofit organizations might have an even stronger imperative to start and maintain telecommuting programs than their for-profit counterparts. Want proof? Just take a look at the numbers.

According to Nonprofit HR’s 2013 Employment Trends Survey, 61 percent of employees who worked at a nonprofit organization with a telecommuting policy said it positively influenced their recruitment and retention, while only two percent said it had a negative impact. Employees also reported that providing a flexible work environment through practices such as telecommuting is increasingly becoming an expectation among new hires.

In the nonprofit world, where workplace demands can be high, benefits like telecommuting can make a world of difference when it comes to attracting and retaining high performing employees.

Improved recruitment and retention isn’t the only benefit of telecommuting, however. Telecommuting employees consistently report lower stress levels and better health, which translates to better work, and ultimately, improved organizational performance. In fact, dozens of studies analyzed by scholars at Penn State showed that telecommuting improves productivity, performance, job satisfaction, and overall life satisfaction.

With this in mind, I believe that nothing positive will come from Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting, except for, perhaps, an example that non-profit organizations can learn from.

With that said, I realize that instituting a telecommuting policy, or maintaining one when times get tough, can be an intimidating prospect for HR leaders at organizations both big and small. After all, there is a certain sense of control and that comes from having your whole team in the same place day-in and day-out. However, making a flexible work environment work for your organization isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

In my experience, a successful telecommuting arrangement requires four things: clear guidelines, managers who are willing to trust their staff when they can’t see them, regularly scheduled face time, and tech tools that make it easy for employees to stay connected no matter where they’re working.

The American Society for Hematology (ASH), a nonprofit that my firm works with, is a great example of an organization that has put all of these components into place and is enjoying the benefits of a successful telecommuting program. Before instituting their policy, ASH created a training program for telecommuters that focused on pillars such as productivity, accountability and communication and sets clear expectations in each of these areas. Thanks to the training program, as well as a part-time telecommuting schedule and technology that keeps the lines of communication open, 50 percent of ASH’s employees now successfully telecommute. Leaders at the organization feel that their telecommuting policy positively impacts morale and allows participating staff to spend more time focusing on producing specific results.

Leaders who are interested in starting or improving their own telecommuting programs can learn a great deal from examples like these.

Armed with the right knowledge and resources, nonprofit organizations and large corporations alike can build telecommuting programs that drive positive bottom-line results.

Let us continue to move forward, invite work and life to co-exist, and strive to improve productivity and retention. Massive cultural shifts are often good for failing organizations, but eliminating the flexibility that helps employees thrive is simply counterproductive. Flexible workplaces breed satisfied and engaged employees. Let us take Mayer’s move as a cautionary tale and continue to find ways to help our talent, and our organizations, succeed.

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