What Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer May Be Missing About Telecommuting

Posted on March 13, 2013 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Last month there was a big hoopla  when Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, issued a ban on Work from Home by the company’s employees. Like troops retreating into the castle, Yahoos have been recalled to the office. All over the planet the media and blogosphere are abuzz with criticism and counter-criticism about what was seen as a regression from the reigning paradigm of workplace flexibility and Work/Life balance. Even the irrelevant fact that Mayer is a woman and a mother was used by some who painted her as a traitor to her gender.

As a veteran driver of Telecommuting, let me explain why I think Ms. Mayer may have done the right thing, but could have done a much better one.

What Yahoo said about Work from Home

The official reasons for the Yahoo decision, as seen in the memo they sent their workforce, was that working at home was bad for the company, because:

  • Some of the best decisions and insights come from unplanned face to face interaction.
  • Quality of work of telecommuters is lower.
  • Speed (i.e. quantity of work) of telecommuters is lower.
  • Group cohesion (“to be one Yahoo!”) requires physically being together.
  • Working side by side will indirectly make Yahoo the absolute best place to work.

A hard look at Yahoo’s Work from Home claims

I’ve spent half a year leading a team that studied Telecommuting to reach recommendations about how to implement it at Intel, and another six months monitoring closely a pilot of the outcome. What I learned disagrees with much of what Yahoo claims. Let’s review:

  • Some of the best decisions and insights come from unplanned face to face interaction. This is true. It is also true hat some other great decisions and insights come from being able to focus on the issue in a quiet, contemplative environment – which is absent in the typical corporate office space and very available at home. So why not have both – work at home part of the time and be in the office another part? I revisit this below.
  • Quality of work of telecommuters is lower. This is certainly not what we saw at Intel, and small wonder: at home people have many fewer interruptions and can focus on doing a quality job.
  • Speed (i.e. quantity of work) of telecommuters is lower. Again, not what we saw. In fact, during the pilot we found that when an urgent task came up the first question was “who is working from home today?” – because it was clear that the telecommuter would deliver faster.
  • Group cohesion (“to be one Yahoo!”) requires physically being together. With this I agree. But people don’t need face time every minute of every weekday; and most large companies are globally dispersed, so team members seldom get to be in one room anyway. I’ve written about the implications in a global context in a previous post.
  • Working side by side will indirectly make Yahoo the absolute best place to work. Sorry… I don’t see that happening. Employees today have firm expectations of seeing their children, and of balancing the intense demands of the job with having a life. The slap in the face of family balance will not be easily forgiven.

So what’s going on with Yahoo’s Telecommuting ban?

If Telecommuting at Intel proved so effective, how come Yahoo is citing such terrible effects?

I’ve seen much speculation in the media, even the dubious idea that it’s a conspiracy to force employees to quit… but for my part I can think of two possible explanations:

  • One possibility is that things at Yahoo have gone awry in recent years and the new CEO feels a need to make major changes to the culture. If so, circling the wagons and keeping everyone close at the office may have made good sense – sometimes a shock treatment is necessary.
  • Another possibility is that Work from Home was implemented at Yahoo in a less than optimal manner, so the full benefits were not achieved and the situation had indeed become harmful to the organization. The very fact that telecommuters have become ineffective means they weren’t being trained and managed properly for this work mode.

Either way, it isn’t the concept of Telecommuting that is to blame… it’s the situation at Yahoo; and addressing the problem’s root causes would have been a better move IMHO.

What you can do about Telecommuting in your own company

Remember: all corporate Work from Home programs are not created equal. Their success depends on numerous policy and implementation details; one company may do it right and flourish where another may fail to reap the benefits (as Yahoo seems to have done).

For example, key parameters include:

  • Who is allowed to work from home and who isn’t (it isn’t for everyone!)
  • How many days a week people may spend at home (we closed on one).
  • How these days are chosen (we stipulated a predictable, fixed weekday for each person).
  • How face time is guaranteed (we ensured one weekday was “office day” for everyone in the team).
  • How these choices are made (they should be taken in coordination with the entire team, including the non-telecommuters, after serious analysis of work needs).
  • What training the home workers receive to ensure they know how to handle specific challenges.
  • What training managers receive to teach them to manage remote workers effectively.

All of which goes into the design of a structured telecommuting program applying to entire teams, as opposed to just allowing people to work from home as individuals.

If you manage telecommuters, or if you’re worried that your company may ban them, take a look at the insight article I’ve published recently, where I list some critical success factors and caveats. Then take a hard look at what your group is currently doing vis a vis Work from Home. Maybe you need to make some changes for the better without blaming this excellent work mode for everything bad under the sun. And, dare I say, perhaps Marissa Mayer should be doing so too…

And if you want to discuss this, I’m at your service.


Related Posts

New Insight Article: The Makings of a Good Corporate Telecommuting Program

Responses to Common Objections to Telecommuting

Work anywhere: is it good or bad for balancing our lives?

Image credit: Antony McCallum