Telecommuting Cuts Across Gender, Generations


By Kathy Gurchiek

​Yahoo President and CEO​  Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting for all Yahoo employees drew a firestorm of criticism. Some framed it as a setback for working women and mothers in particular.

However, Families and Work Institute (FWI) CEO and President Ellen Galinsky says workplace flexibility is not a gender issue.

“There’s an assumption that flexibility is for mothers, and some parts of it are,” Galinsky told SHRM Online. Even so, research reveals that men, too, are interested in flexible work schedules. Two studies that confirm this are the “Male Mystique” study, which the FWI released in 2011, and the “New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted” study, also put out in 2011, by the Boston College Center for Work & Family. The latter study of 963 working fathers who had at least one child 18 or younger found that being able to telecommute and to work flexible hours were two of the most commonly cited forms of flexibility the men wanted.

“Organizations need to let go of outmoded thinking about gender roles and realize that fathers are increasingly as likely as mothers to want and need to be extremely active in parenting,” the authors of that report wrote.

While men may not be the primary child caregiver often, they “are very involved in elder care,” according to Galinsky.

“I know men want [flexibility] just as much as women do,” she said, adding that their comfort in requesting it has much to do with their workplace culture and whether their organization perceives telework as a woman’s issue. The Boston College study found that 79 percent of the fathers who were not telecommuting believed that the company would not allow them to.

Other big businesses are announcing changes to their telework policies. Best Buy is eliminating telework but will provide flexibility on a case-by-case basis. Bank of America made changes to its telecommuting policy in late 2012.

Women do influence telecommuting policies.The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the FWI, which have a formal partnership dating to 2011 to advocate for workplace flexibility, co-released the 2012 National Study of Employersin April 2012. The study found that organizations in which women make up less than 25 percent of the employees are more likely to have a low level of flexibility than those in which women represent a larger share of the workforce.

Galinsky noted that interest in workplace flexibility not only spans genders but generations, as well, though younger workers are more likely to expect workplace flexibility.

“They’ve grown up as digital natives,” she said of younger workers. “They’re used to working from anytime, anyplace, and they expect it.”

Workers with Disabilities

Linda Batiste, J.D., a principal consultant at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), said banning telework could affect workers with disabilities who telecommute but have not identified themselves as disabled to their employer.

JAN is a free consulting service that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy funds.

“Offering flexibility”—telecommuting, alternate schedules, job sharing—“is helpful to everybody instead of having a very rigid policy,” said Beth Loy, Ph.D., a principal consultant at JAN. “And having people ask for accommodations tends not to be as worker friendly.”

Mayer issued the ban after being at Yahoo for only nine months.

“We see situations where a new supervisor comes in and a new supervisor wants to change things, and that change sometimes affects people with disabilities—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively,” Loy said.

“When you’re talking about a benefit change, you need to communicate those types of things ahead of time, and if you have accommodations in place, you need to talk with employees [as to] whether this is going to affect their accommodations and are there other accommodations that can be identified,” she suggested. “If you’re going to make this policy sweeping, you’re going to have to talk to everybody who would be affected by it.”

“The difficult part of this situation [is that] Yahoo has a lot of employees and probably has a lot of employees who have never disclosed [their disability]” but who use telework as an accommodation, she surmised.

“Regardless of how open a [workplace] culture [is], some individuals are able to make their own accommodations” without disclosing their need to the employer, Loy added. “It is very difficult with individuals with disabilities to talk about limitations.”

Batiste advised that in addition to surveying employees who use telecommuting as an accommodation, companies that ban telecommuting should inform all employees about how to request an accommodation.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.​


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