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No going back for those working at home

Yahoo’s shift angers many who prize flexibility

Cheryl Stober with her daughter, Hannah

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

Cheryl Stober works from home on Tuesdays to take care of her daughter, Hannah.

It was the interoffice memo that shook home offices around the world.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read the memo to employees of struggling tech giant Yahoo. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

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The language was awkward, but the message from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive, was clear: telecommuters, step back to your desks by June 1, or leave the company.

The memo has ignited a nationwide conversation — in offices, on Twitter, and at day-care pickups — about what researchers say is the most important issue to many of today’s workers: the flexibility to work where and when they want.

Indignation over the Yahoo memo was quick and visceral in some corners, with many pointing out what appears to be a double standard in the age of connected-all-the-time employment: people can’t work from home during regular business hours, but they’re expected to work from home after regular business hours.

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“I just can’t believe she means for people to put down their BlackBerrys or whatever they use when they leave the office,” said Katharine Silbaugh, a Boston University professor of law and a specialist on work-family policy. “She should be made to live with the proclamation . . . so that once we are home, we can’t possibly be expected to answer e-mails, read reports, [or] prepare for meetings.”

Mayer’s move was an attempt to foster more communication and collaboration at the troubled company, where she took the top job months ago.

Mayer, 37, was pregnant in July when she was tapped to be chief executive, a fact heralded as progress by many work-life balance advocates — and more than a few working mothers.

But Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute in New York, said telecommuting is not the problem.

“The problem is how they’re managing employees,” she said. “In a global firm, you are not going to have people bumping into each other anyway.”

If there is any good news for workers, it is that Yahoo’s new rule is counter to the corporate trend, Galinsky said. A 2012 national study by her organization found that 63 percent of firms allowed some employees to work from home occasionally, compared with 2005, when only 34 percent of employers allowed such flexibility.

Researchers say the literature shows that workers given flexibility are generally more productive than those forced into face time, and that they often work more hours for the same pay, as the lines between work and home blur ever further.

Indeed, even as employees express appreciation to employers for flexibility, research shows that it can be a double-edged sword.

“People who work at home end up end doing five to seven hours more a week,” said Mary Noonan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa and co-author of the paper “The Hard Truth about Telecommuting,” published in the government’s Monthly Labor Review in June.

“It’s a way for employers to suck more time out of employees,” she said.

But all around Boston, work-at-home parents said their lives would not work if they could not work at home.

“If I’m an hour away, and something happens, I can’t just jump in the car to meet the school bus,” said Cheryl Stober, the mother of two and a product analyst for a Boston investment firm.

Stober lives in Newton and works in Boston, and said that finding a reliable sitter for a few hours on a Tuesday — when her 9-year-old daughter’s school lets out early — is not easy. “The thought of my daughter standing on a street corner worries me,” she said.

In Shrewsbury, Whit Andrews, a tech analyst at Gartner, a research and advisory company, and a single father of an 11-year-old son, was even more emphatic.

“It would not be possible to raise my son the way I feel it is my duty to do, and work in an office,” he said. “For me to do my duty with this boy, this flexibility has been essential to my sense of self-worth as a father and as a worker.”

Even as Twitter exploded after the Yahoo memo, one local employer said telecommuting is what makes his firm work — despite some concerns.

“I’m not worried about productivity,” said Patrick Sweeney II, president and chief executive of dwinQ, a Cambridge-based social media marketing firm with 25 employees, nine of whom telecommute full or part time.

His biggest concerns — not, perhaps, unlike Mayer’s — are the team dynamic, which he is trying to address by bringing in workers every couple of weeks, and whether working at home will be rewarding enough.

“Do they get the same personal fulfillment sitting at home in their bathrobe?” he asked. “I don’t think they do.”

But some workers say that while they would love to socialize more with co-workers, the time spent commuting adds stress to days that are planned down to the minute.

“It’s really important to me to be able to cook a healthy dinner instead of sitting in traffic,” said Amy Konary, a mother of three and a vice president with Framingham-based IDC.

Konary has about two weeks left on her maternity leave, and going back to work — if it meant heading into an office every day — would not let her parent the way she wants, she said.

“I will be able to continue to nurse him for six months,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to deal with with all the pumping and bottles.”

In Duxbury, Heather Fiedler, the director of development at Campus of Caring, a nonprofit in Norwell, captured the pluses and minuses of having flexibility in a work world that runs around the clock.

“I feel like I can get so much more done from home,” she said, listing to-do items ranging from work tasks to mundane chores like laundry. “There are fewer distractions.

“The other thing,” she said cheerfully, “is that I can be working at 10:30 at night when my kids are in bed.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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