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Yahoo! We get to work together face to face.

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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.”

Comments (9)

  • This has been an interesting situation for a couple of reasons:

    1. Since there has been no statement indicating that having people work from home is the, or even a, primary cause of the company’s troubles, this appears to be a knee-jerk reaction by a new CEO. The dictatorial method in which the edict has been delivered adds to this perception.

    2. Because of #1, the vast majority of comments I’ve seen have also been knee-jerk reactions.

    In truth, nothing in the media has given us enough information to tell whether this move is justified or just a fiat issued by someone who doesn’t want to consider the fact that we’re now in the 21st century (that’s not intended to be a characterization of Mayer, by the way; it’s a generic description).

    My only opposition — and it doesn’t really make any difference to me, since I don’t work for Yahoo! — is the reason she gives. I don’t know the company’s geographical structure, but if employees are routinely expected to work with colleagues in any other office, especially if the other office is halfway around the world, then the argument that creativity comes only from face-to-face encounters doesn’t hold water.

  • If Yahoo! turns around, I predict “The Next Big Thing” in business will be no more telework.

  • One issue that has not been noted in the articles (that I have read): Does Yahoo have the space?

    If yes, then why did they have so much unused space? If no, for each 1,000 employees that must now report to the office, needed is roughly 100,000 ft sq of space.

    From way back in the olden days, one of my bosses frequently said “good managers can manage anything” The unsaid portion was obvious . . . “bad managers couldn’t . . .”

    And if the intent over time was to lower the number of off-site employees, why make a big deal of it. Makes the boss sound weak by declaring that those who were not effective working offsite will be effective working on site.

    (I have my web presence on Yahoo . . . I suspect that I am one of many who are looking for alternatives.)

  • It was noted somewhere that Marissa had reviewed VPN logs and determined that people were being efficient when working from home. That is management speak for them being slackers. Whether this is the case or not is up to her.

    Bob you did get one thing wrong. The nursery is for executives who have not performed well at Yahoo! and need quiet time.

  • Here I thought Mayer was being arrogant but you straightened me out.
    As far as telework itself, one more reason for having it is coop–continuity of operations.
    But as usual, it is mismanaged like most other things and the blame falls on the worker, not on the poor processes and unexamined expectations.

    imo, I just figured it was a way to get a layoff without announcing one (without affecting stock prices). What I find most interesting in the whole deal is everyone is talking about Yahoo’s internal policies and not about their products or marketing strategy. (Is that sarcasm or just observation?)

  • As an alternative to Ms. Mayer paying rent on the space for her nursery, she could declare the per-square-foot rent as income on her taxes.

    Reminds me of the situation many years ago where a high-performing executive had set aside a given week to potty train her child, and was working from home that week. When there was a crisis and she needed to be in a meeting at headquarters, Mom, baby, nanny, and potty all turned up in the conference room. It was one of the more unusual meetings of my career.

  • I wonder if the decision was based on recent studies regarding how employees collaborate and innovate. My experience has been that working together to complete various tasks can be accomplished by telecommuters. But brainstorming and serendipity are more successful and common when employees spend time in the same rooms & hallways.

    The unanswered question: What improvements are expected due to this policy change?

    There is an article on a recent study of how employees collaborate at this URL: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/companies-now-putting-sensors-employees-222317568.html. The referenced HBR article contains interesting observations.

  • I agree that I’m more effective in the office, and I generally prefer it. Two of us on our team, though, because of illness/disability work mostly from home. I’m certainly glad that my employer hasn’t made this pronuncement (yet)!

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