Last Updated: Thu, Mar 28, 2013 20:48 hrs

In her nearly two-year stint at Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer has made headlines thrice when at 37, she became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company; when she joined office within two weeks of becoming a mother; and when she banned work-from-home for all employees in February.

Although employees have enough time to absorb the shock (the decision comes into effect from June), Mayer has clearly become one of the most hated CEOs in corporate America for adopting practices that, some say, are more suited to the Stone Age. So far, the kindest comment has been that she is doing it out of a typical management fear that if you dont see your staff, you dont possess them.

Mayers decision, human resource experts point out, goes against the findings of several research reports that say people who work from home term it as a significant job perk and tend to have less stress and are more productive partly because they dont have to invest time and money in commuting, and because they can balance their personal and work lives.

What seems to have rankled everybody the most is how an ex-Google staffer (Mayer was earlier vice-president at Google and worked there for over a decade) could take such blatantly unfriendly employee policies. After all, Googles flexible work policy is the stuff that dream jobs are made of.

But wait a minute. The kindest thing that can be said about such a comparison is that it is nothing but plain ignorance. For, barely days after Mayers much-criticised policy came to light, one of Googles top executives said in a talk show that magical moments at work could not be created in isolation. Patrick Pichette, chief financial officer of Google, said the management made sure that as few as possible employees get the option to telecommute. Pichette said he believed that working from home could isolate employees from other staff, and cited a Dilbert cartoon in which Dilbert ends up working from home half-naked because those in videoconferences with him could only see him on screens from the waist up.

Thats not something substantially different from what Mayers office memo said while hard selling the concept of One Yahoo! that being side by side fosters collaboration and improves work speed and quality, and that some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.

The fact of the matter is that while work-from-home is a good concept and should be allowed selectively, the misgivings that managements have about allowing it on a wider scale are rooted in the behaviour of quite a few employees who have interpreted it as shirk-from-home. There are examples galore of how some workers have abused the work-from-home option to the point that they have founded their own side-businesses while being on the companys payroll. Mayers own experience didnt speak highly of the work culture of quite a few of Yahoo!s employees.

Besides, some experts compare work-from-home to universities going online as it cuts the teaching payroll. But its never a good idea if students end up with a degree while never having met a professor who talks with facility and who teaches like a dream.

Also, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Allen has showed that if people are more than 150 feet apart, the probability that they will communicate frequently plummets. This shows that no amount of Skype or dirt cheap broadband services can compensate for the need to meet physically. In the office, you can easily fire off question after question with no problem and the best part have something personally explained to you if you still dont understand. Long-distance communication can never achieve this.

Where Mayer perhaps faltered is the way she communicated the decision about such an emotive subject. There was surely a better way to word it or implement it than the all-or-nothing direction the email laid out. Yahoo!s HR department could have surely given more reasons for the decision and laid out a detailed game plan for helping out employees whose lives are being turned upside down. That would have prevented the flak Yahoo! received for projecting an image that it doesnt trust its employees and that its diktat is nothing but a knee-jerk response of a new CEO who wants to teach them a lesson. It only shows that while the intent was good, the implementation of it was not thought through in details, as a result of which the impression that went out is that the CEO is on the warpath about what she perceives to be bludgers sitting around at home on company time.

Its nobodys case that work-from-home is a bad idea and everyone will now kill it off. Far from it, as its a useful practice in many ways it leads to higher levels of job satisfaction and is often a small price to pay for keeping the best talent on your payroll. But it would succeed only if everyone concerned agree on one thing that work-from-home is a privilege, and not a right, and if managements think that employees are misusing the privilege, they are well within their rights to take that privilege away.

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