03/15/2013 12:14 EDT | Updated 05/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Yahoo! Employees Should Be in the Office

FILE - In this May 20, 2012 file photo, a Yahoo sign stands outside the company's offices in Santa Clara, Calif. Yahoo turned in another lackluster performance in the second quarter announce the company on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. The results underscore the challenges facing Yahoo's newly hired CEO Marissa Mayer as she tries to turn around the Internet company after a 13-year career as a top Google executive. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

For many of us already struggling to find that ever-elusive balance between work and family life, Marissa Mayer's announcement that Yahoo! employees must return to their desks initially comes across as old school patriarchic boorishness -- but with a postmodern twist. The patriarch is a hot young mommy with a nursery in her office.

As tempting as it is to join the 'great leap backwards' pile on, I'm forced to admit that her decision makes good sense, especially given that she is dealing with an underperforming workforce and low employee morale. Mayer's main task is to increase shareholder value. As much as rebuilding the culture and increasing revenues is the way to get there, having employees together in one space is a good start.

That said, there is little doubt that flexible work arrangements and family friendly employment structures are crucial for the success of modern organizations. The diversity of today's workforce simply requires it. Over 70 per cent of mothers with dependent children work in the paid labour force, more and more dads are demanding better work-family balance, and urban commutes only ever seem to get longer.

The challenge for employers is to find a way to offer family friendly work structures that are also good for business. Making employees happy by letting them work from home isn't by definition going to lead to top level productivity or a robust organizational culture. That's the fundamental tension. And the harsh reality.

As the ongoing debates well illustrate, this assertion is contentious. Some experts argue that telecommuting absolutely increases productivity. If it doesn't, they say, this only means it hasn't been implemented properly.

Others, however, argue the opposite, especially when talking about jobs that require and rely on collaboration. A major review of 80 studies on telecommuting, for example, found "little clear evidence that telework increases job satisfaction and productivity, as it is often asserted to do."

Dr. John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University says a big downside of telecommuting is that it reduces innovation. Given that "innovation brings in much higher profits than the traditional goal of corporate efficiency" that's a downside employers aren't inclined to ignore.

Sullivan's point resonates. In my discipline (social research), it's often said that the key to good knowledge-building isn't knowing the right answer, it's asking the right question. Indeed, much of the "answer-getting" part of research can be done in ways that modern technology and telecommuting philosophies support. I can manage projects, conduct interviews, analyze data, and write reports just as well from my kitchen table as I can from an office.

But the innovative part of research -- the "figuring out the right questions" part -- is where face-to-face makes a difference. Knowledge building is an emergent, dynamic, iterative process. And the simple truth is that it works better when in-person collaboration, discussion and debate is plentiful.

Can you still do it without the face-to-face? Of course. But it's clunkier.

The same principle most certainly applies to the technology industry, which lives and breathes by its ability to innovate. No one suggests that Skyping with friends or loved ones is just as good as spending time with them in person. The qualities that make in-person interactions different, better, than their alternatives may well be tacit, but there's no mistaking they're real. The bottom line is that it's tougher to make magic happen when separated by miles and a computer screen. And right now, Yahoo! needs some magic.

Maybe the debate shouldn't centre so much on the question, "Does telecommuting improve worker productivity?" Maybe instead we should be asking "In what contexts is telcommuting most likely to work well -- for employees and the bottom line?"

The success of telecommuting any given organization will depend of any number of factors, including the jobs involved, the management structure, the size of the organization, and the needs and interests of workers. Most crucially, it will also depend on the particular situation of the organization and existing work culture.

We'll have to wait and see what Mayer's next steps are in the plan for rebuilding organizational culture and growing revenues. Certainly, a complete absence of flexible work arrangements would be ludicrous for Yahoo! moving forward -- if the CEO feels the need to build a bedroom for her son at work so she can be in the office more, surely the needs of other parents in the organization will also be given due. Or will they?

Whatever the eventual outcome, Mayer's own return to the office after only two weeks clearly demonstrates her commitment to this project. She could have continued working from home for the rest of her postpartum months -- any mother I know certainly would have. Then again, the new mothers I know aren't CEOs of major corporations. They wouldn't want to be -- no work-life balance.