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Attention freelancers and consultants: The real reason Yahoo changed its telecommuting policy

In February, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that Yahoo staff will no longer be permitted to work from home.

Many observers interpreted the new policy as an attack on parents, especially mothers, noting Mayer’s hypocrisy in returning to work and a fully decked out onsite nursery soon after the birth of her baby but making parenting more difficult for underlings.

Other experts suggested that some workers will resign rather than comply, which works out to be a no-cost layoff for Yahoo.

I’ve got a third theory that I have not seen anywhere. Before I put it out there, recognize that I have no insider knowledge and don’t even work in the IT industry.

Now here goes: Yahoo wants to prevent employees from taking on outside freelance and consulting assignments in addition to their work at Yahoo.

In my work with those who want to freelance and consult, I see considerable interest in how to balance self-employment with full-time corporate work.

Companies see workers as expendable, as interchangeable cogs, as expenses to be whittled down. As executives look for ways to cut costs, they favor the layoff as a quick path to cutting fat. The short features that pull readers into online and print job listings advise that the way to hang on to your job is to be indispensable and hard working. However, we all know invaluable people who have been let go, perhaps because employers can dismiss one high-paid worker and substitute two or three bodies, even if these bodies can’t perform the same miracles.

Employers won’t promise job security—everyone is his own brand and should develop his career path with no dependence on his current company, we are told.

Professionals are discovering that the best solution is to build your own practice with freelance and consulting assignments so you have something in place whenever the ax falls. A second solution is to network intensely with people at other companies, including competitors. Good luck getting out to professional programs and happy hours when the boss has you onsite.

Both solutions—self-employment on the side and fierce networking—are darned difficult when you are in the office all the time. Though most everyone at a tech company such as Yahoo has his own smart phone, it’s difficult to sneak out of the cubicle so no one can hear. It’s also challenging to make emergency adjustments on your side project during the day. And since face time is so valued at Yahoo, it’s probably impossible to take off at 5 pm or even 6.

In the best of all worlds, staff will limit their solopro assignments to those that are totally unrelated to their day job or even turn down such work entirely so they can serve their employer with greater devotion.

However, there’s no sign that Yahoo is “the best of all worlds.” It appears that they want to get the most time out of their employees without returning any security.

Here are some of the solutions I see taking place at both Yahoo and employers at large:

  • Employees will find ways to get out of the office to take calls privately, whether down the hall, in the outdoor smoking area or in the parking lot. This will take a lot more time than simply answering their phones at home.

  • Yahoo will demand (if it hasn’t already) employee contracts with noncompete, confidentiality and other restrictive clauses. Some employees will sign, but the IT stars that Yahoo most wants to hire will walk or have their attorneys counter with language that is much less restrictive.

  • Some employees will take their chances undertaking solopro gigs on the side, telling themselves that it’s better to apologize after the fact than to ask permission beforehand.

  • Employees—and even their managers—will cover for each other so that they can escape detection when furthering their side projects during the work day. Some employees will even cooperate with each other to share side assignments.

  • The best people will get the hell out, perhaps not right now but as soon as they have something better lined up.

  • Those who hire freelancers and consultants will expect to work with them weekends and evenings. Just as many U.S. clients are interacting late at night with India and other countries, American solopros will take advantage of this flexibility to communicate with clients from home during non-office hours.

  • Maybe some employers will offer higher pay to encourage workers to put in more time and forego outside assignments. I see this solution as the least likely but you never can tell.

I’d guess that it is becoming ever easier to find ways to freelance and consult on the side while still employed full-time. Moves such as Yahoo’s will make workarounds standard practice.

Originally posted 4-7-13

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