Hot on the heels of her breakthrough concept for Yahoo! … redesign the home page! … Marissa Mayer made headlines by eliminating telework as her next Big Idea. Best Buy quickly followed suit, leading opinionators from around the country to share their brilliant insights on the topic.
Just in case you’re the sort who requires a 😉 to identify sarcasm, I’m being sarcastic.
Most of these commentators know little or nothing about the subject. You can tell by how many of them talk about telework as if it’s something benevolent employers bestow on lucky employees.
It’s an interesting notion: When an employer gets the same benefits for lower costs, it’s benevolent. And all these years I’ve been using benevolent as a synonym for generous. Now that I know, I’ll reform the rest of my vocabulary too. From now on up means “toward the center of the earth,” dark means “the experience you get looking directly into the sun,” and outside means “working in a corporate cubicle.”
Suggestion: Maybe these opinionators should pay attention to what’s happened in successful turnarounds, rather than in turnarounds-in-progress.
At a minimum, they should have some knowledge about what is and isn’t working well within the halls of Yahoo! and Best Buy.
Me, I have no idea whether Mayer is right or wrong about what Yahoo! needs to do. I don’t have any idea whether Best Buy’s Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE, and was that the best they could come up with?) was a success or a bust.
What I do know is that there’s nothing to be learned from these decisions. At least, not yet.
Here’s what we do know about telework (and forgive me for repeating myself):
- Managing teleworkers calls for specific techniques and skills beyond what’s needed to manage employees face-to-face.
- In particular, without managers who know how to lead remote employees, teleworkers risk becoming second-class corporate citizens.
- Telework tends to be a better fit for responsibilities assigned to individual contributors than those assigned to teams.
- When teleworkers are supposed to work as a team, they need support in the form of tools — especially web conferencing tools — techniques, and coaching.
- Good employees perform better in a telework environment than they do in an office environment. Mediocre-to-poor employees perform worse in a telework environment than they do in an office environment.
Whatever else there is to be said about Marissa Mayer’s decision, she was right about one piece of the puzzle: Before they’re anything else, organizations are collections of relationships, and establishing and maintaining relationships is more difficult for teleworkers than for on-site employees. So if she sees a lot of friction and silos-of-one among employees at all levels at Yahoo!, there’s logic to her action.
And, whatever else there is to be said about her decision, she got one thing excruciatingly wrong (and lots of other commentators have talked about this one, so forgive me for piling on):
In its chapter on motivation, Leading IT identifies three outstanding ways to demotivate employees: Arrogance, disrespect, and unfairness.
When Mayer announced she was eliminating telework, it came out that at the same time she was building a nursery next to her office. That’s supposedly okay because she did it at her own expense.
To which, before getting back to the main point, may I just ask, and you fell for that?
Mayer is only building it at her own expense if she pays rent to Yahoo! every month at the going rates for the square footage her nursery occupies. Thus far I’ve yet to read that this is the case.
So back to the three demotivators. Arrogance? No, this decision wasn’t arrogant, whatever else it was. Disrespect? Not really. Mayer didn’t accuse teleworkers of slacking. She said she wants everyone face-to-face to provide the sparks of creativity that happen better that way.
But unfairness? Bingo. Anatole France put it nicely a long time ago: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Even if Mayer allowed every employee to build out nurseries next to their cubicles, with Yahoo! providing the space, she still wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Her enormous personal wealth and compensation see that.
But she doesn’t, so she’s just another example of privilege, which as Terry Pratchett pointed out in one of his fine Discworld books, literally means “private law.”