Photo: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer / BLOOMBERG NEWS
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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Gina Pappas called me back seven minutes after receiving my voice mail at her “office.”
“I had to go pick my kid up,” the 32-year-old public relations professional told me a little apologetically. Then she laughed.
“I know that’s the whole point.”
The whole point is Gina works from her home in northwest Omaha. Five days a week. Wearing comfy yoga pants and a phone headset. Sometimes sneaking in a load of laundry between client calls. Breaking to drive kids to and from school. Clocking out for dinner and back in after bedtime.
It’s a scenario she wouldn’t trade, which makes her glad she’s employed by Omaha-based Albers Communications. And not, say, Yahoo.
The Silicon Valley-based company made headlines this week with CEO Marissa Mayer’s dictum that employees come to work AT work.
“Beginning in June,” reads the now-viral Yahoo memo, “we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo offices.”
This presumably includes here, where Yahoo has offices in west Omaha and La Vista. A company spokeswoman said she couldn’t tell me how many locals are Yahoos (their term), but a friend and former Omaha Yahoo guessed about 200.
So why is Yahoo pulling in the herd?
Tech firms have figured out that all the gadgetry, all the online wizardry, all the technological magic that enables people to do everything outside an office requires, alas, an office. Where human beings interact with one another in person. Where we spark ideas in shared elevator rides, in the lunchroom cafeteria, over cubicle walls.
Face time — as in the actual, not the app — still counts for something.
Experts say human contact sparks innovation. It’s why rising Google — where Mayer worked before lagging Yahoo snagged her to save its skin — offers numerous on-site perks, such as free food, haircuts, dry cleaning and massages to keep employees on campus.
Paradoxically, the same experts say if you want to be productive, work from home.
They should add the following caveat: As long as you have day care. And enough discipline not to get pulled too far away by the endless household tasks that await. And the ability to shut off work when it’s time.
Gina has all that. After her husband leaves for his computer job, her mother, a retired teacher, comes all day so Gina can walk into her home office and close the door. Then she is Gina Pappas, director of new media, for national clients like Merry Maids.
There’s no way, she said, she could do this job from her dining room table or with child clatter in the background.
Yes, she runs to school and breaks for lunch with her mom and kids, or to dispense Tylenol if someone has a fever, or to collect an artistic masterpiece from her toddler daughter. Yes, she also works at night. Yes, she’s technically part time, though she works at least 40 hours a week.
It’s a benefit she wouldn’t trade because she feels like she has the best of both worlds.
“I can’t imagine ever going back to a situation where I wasn’t working at home,” says Gina. “I would have such a hard time going back to a brick-and-mortar office building.”
But don’t you miss the water cooler chat, I ask. What about the office energy? What about that pal who makes you laugh, talks you off the cliff, gives you that great idea? Aren’t you on an island at your house?
Gina replies: I have conference calls with colleagues. Facebook Messenger. The regular in-person client meetings. The monthly meetings at the rented office space where 16 of the 17-member Albers staff gather. The 17th, who lives near Des Moines, shows up via Skype.
They all work from home. And the flip side of office camaraderie, she says, is office drama.
Her boss and company founder, Tom Albers, says this is a business model that works for them. The 13-year-old public relations company has clients in all 50 states and Canada. They save time by not commuting and save overhead by not having a building.
“We feel like we’re much more productive,” he said, “and much more responsive.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics backs that up. Telecommuting, it says, boosts productivity, decreases absenteeism and retains talent.
There is a detractor, Tom says: “Number one is the difficulty you might have pulling yourself from your work because it’s always there.”
That’s true for anyone with a smartphone. It’s hard to ignore the blinking light. Google, Yahoo and all the rest have made it so that even if we do work at a desk in a building that is not our house, we’re still always working at home.
Tom is the only male at Albers, which he said is representative of an industry that skews female.
But it’s hard to tell how representative he and Gina are as full-time telecommuters.
Media outlets cite Bureau of Labor Statistics, which estimated in a special report released last year that 24 percent of Americans work some hours from home. But that would include people like me, who work some hours from home but most hours in our downtown office and anywhere else on assignment.
Plus the figure is nearly 10 years old. The BLS said it has no update.
I asked David Drozd of the University of Nebraska at Omaha for help. The UNO demographer pulled 2011 Census figures, measuring workers 16 and older who would have spent most of their work time at home.
Nationally: 6 million workers, or 4.3 percent of the labor force. Omaha metro: 15,536 workers, or 3.5 percent of our workforce.
Gender was hardly a predictor: Slightly more men work from home nationally; slightly more women do so in Omaha.
Regardless of the share of workers, this issue has sparked a national discussion on where we work best, and how.
There’s no question for Gina.
“I’d never want anyone to think I work less hard,” she says. “There’s that kind of stigma. This is probably the busiest job I’ve ever had. But it’s a privilege, it’s not a right. You have to be able to produce, you have to be able to show the results.”
For struggling Yahoo, those results weren’t showing up. So Mayer is reeling her people back to the office.
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