Marissa Mayer, I hear you

Marissa Mayer, I hear you

Summary: Yahoo's new chief executive puts teamwork ahead of telecommuting. Is that so wrong?

TOPICS: Telework

As befits a chief executive hired with explicit orders to disrupt a company's stagnating culture, Marissa Mayer met with a great deal of criticism this weekend when word leaked that Yahoo employees would no longer be allowed to telecommute.

In the words of Jackie Reses, head of human resources for the company:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

You can imagine the outrage. An Internet company, disconnected? What kind of perverse strategy into the future is this?

But I hear you, Ms. Mayer. And I don't disagree.

Culture change

By my best estimation, Marissa Mayer is trying to infuse her new company with much of the same attitude that her previous employer, Google, is famous for. After years of unsuccessful incremental change, Yahoo surely needs it.

And what is that attitude, exactly? According to various Googlers I know, it's what Yahoo was in its heyday: a place where the brightest minds on the Internet convened to create and innovate. Today, Google is a place built on deep benches of talent, round-the-clock hard work and a good deal of freedom. It succeeds because it (usually) throws the best resources it has at a project, and those resources don't need oversight to keep on it with ardent fervor. For all of Google's reported internecine issues -- fiefdoms of creativity that don't talk to each other -- the one thing you can't say about that company's various teams is that they are content with the status quo.

Contrast that with Yahoo, which like many mature Internet companies has seen malaise set in as it maintains existing businesses, rather than pursuing new ones. 

The issue that sparks this latest debate, of course, is telework. Both Google and Yahoo are among the companies that have embraced connectivity as a way to free its employees from their desks, even as they spend lavishly on open plan offices designed to attract workers in the first place. For Mayer to turn her back on this concept is an affront to the dot-com dynamic, even if it affects by my rough estimate approximately five percent of the company's workforce.

Much of the subsequent coverage of the decision has framed telework as a right to be taken away, rather than a privilege to be relinquished. "Even waiting for the cable guy is questionable," Kara Swisher writes with a bit of glee. It's not that simple.

Telecommuting: triumphs vs. troubles

There is a considerable amount of consternation around how to manage teams of information workers in an age of globalization (your best engineers might not live here) and shifting cultural expectations (your best engineers might be new parents). There does not seem to be consensus on the issue -- some decry distributed workforces as collaboratively ineffective; others decry the physical office as a nest of distraction. There is truth to both. (There's a great Hacker News thread from last month expanding on this.)

The best take on the subject I've read comes from Red Hat's Bob McWhirter, who suggests that it's an all-or-nothing proposition that is defined more by how you work than where you are. And if you're a remote worker for a largely centralized, localized team, well, you'll be working twice as hard to keep in the loop. Telework: it's not a matter of geography, it's a matter of communication. If you're doing it wrong, there's a good chance it's ruining everything.

We can all agree that Yahoo is not great at communication. (Let us not forget that this is the company that fired Mayer's predecessor, Carol Bartz, by phone.) To get Yahoo on the right track, then, change begins with the very means by which its employees work together. Mayer isn't saying distributed workforces don't work. She isn't even saying telecommuting doesn't work. She's just saying that remote workers don't work -- certainly not for centralized Yahoo, certainly not right now. It is easier to ask a small minority of staff to return to the office than ask the majority to go home and never come back.

That's a bitter pill for Yahoo veterans to swallow, of course, particularly the ones who were hired with promises of flexibility in this regard. FedEx packages will soon be re-routed to the office. Childcare services will be on speed dial. And a handful of employees will invariably quit in frustration, because Yahoo's new path suddenly no longer aligns with their own.

That's OK. You can't please everyone all the time. "[The decision] is outrageous and a morale killer," an unnamed employee tells Swisher in her report. That couldn't be more wrong. It is alienation and isolation -- as well as the turf wars and resentment that result -- that are culture-sapping morale killers. Leaving this kind of thing to fester in your organization as a newly-hired CEO? That is the true outrage.

Look at it another way: Mayer would not have made such a decision if it weren't a problem. It is more expensive -- to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars -- for Yahoo to provide a workstation for every single employee in the urban hubs in which it operates.

As a member of a distributed team who is typing these words from his couch at home, I feel for the affected employees; I do. But Mayer's (rather undesirable) task is to put the interests of the whole ahead of the interests of the individual. Her ultimate goal is to crush complacency in an 18-year-old Internet company without an identity. You can't fault her for that.

Topic: Telework

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Last century thinking

    There is something I didn't expect from Mayer but that's exactly what it is, early last century at that. I have worked on global teams and obviously we were not in the same room except for a few week long meetings. Appears to be a boneheaded move to me.
    • Exactly!

      An online company stating *EVERYONE* in her company will work better in a traditional office setting? Extremely short-sighted for a CEO. Blanket policies (a.k.a, "zero tolerance" rules) are the mark of a weak-minded and lazy leader.

      I would have a LOT more respect for her if she had announced a plan to *blend* the in-office and telecommuting styles, applying each to where it presents an advantage.
      • This is a good point.

        One thing that I wondered while reading the memo: why does it even exist? Why send a memo to the entire company, instead of address only the problematic telecommuters directly?

        This memo obviously wasn't intended to be leaked to the press, but they never are, are they? Not very good control over the company's public relations to let a change to a tiny minority color a new CEO's management style.

        Unless that's exactly what Yahoo comms was trying to do -- demonstrate change. Though I wonder if the message too quickly spun off in a different, tech-hostile direction.
        • Because then you might offend somebody's

          precious little feelings.
          • You win a prize

            We have a similar situation where I work. We have some employees who worked exclusively from home as what they do doesn't really require them to be in the office. I was even encouraged to do so but I prefer to work in my office and only work from home on occasion. But that's my preference. However a couple of employees lack of production was creating a concern so they decided all people must come to the office 2 days a week. It wasn't for everyone, but it was for some.
        • I wonder if she embraced this while running other companies?

          I suspect that while at Google she had global teams, working mothers and others who worked remotely and she thought that this progressive type of thinking led to productivity gains.

          But now, with nothing to offer Yahoo, she flip flops and demands a return to the 90's.

          (Of course, Im sure SHE is able to take time/work remotely to be with her children.)
          • I think the article is right on with Can't

            If this were another company like Google they would be embarrassed by the inability to manage telecommuters. Not Yahoo, their communication lines are so bad they are using blanket policies to shore up poor management. It is not a good sign. Honestly a forward thinking company never rules out any possibilities. Another big concern should be retaining quality employee at all cost not the opposite. A smart company could have worded it as an incentive program and and turned it into some kind of benefit.
          • yeah, this reeks of failure

            Management failure.
        • Memo

          "One thing that I wondered while reading the memo: why does it even exist? Why send a memo to the entire company, instead of address only the problematic telecommuters directly?"

          Well, I'm not sure the problem is with a small set of "problem" telecommuters. It obviously is a widespread enough problem that instead of taking the privilege away from a select few workers, and entire company policy change was made. And that's really the reason I'm guessing it needed to be sent to the whole company - so that everyone is made aware of the policy change (no doubt there are plenty at Yahoo who either don't telecommute very often, or that were planning to in the future).
      • I dunno

        I kinda get it. People working remotely could be replaced by contract folks, and probably more cheaply. What you want from on staff smart people is the ability to work as a collective, where the company is smarter than any individual, and teams excel beyond what even the solo stars can do on their own.

        Now in extraordinary circumstances, I think you make allowances (illness, etc.) But the ordinary circumstance is well served by people collaborating together, forming the fast friendships and instinctive bonds that makes tight knit teams outperform their competitors.
    • Because nobody anywhere did anything right last century?

      Because nobody anywhere did anything right last century?

      "I have worked on global teams and obviously we were not in the same room except for a few week long meetings."

      Your business probably isn't in the same situation as Yahoo.

      This move is IMO not likely to be a permanent strategy, but rather a temporary bandage.
    • greywolf3 .. couldn't agree more

      I'm also curious as to whether Nusca would be so "agreeable" with Mayer if she weren't a hot, young blonde gal .. and instead were a Bezos, Ellison or Cook?

      Seems like some good old fashioned megalomaniac, power-dressed, Rolodex flexing from Ms. Mayers.

      Naughty, naughty .. someone's been repeat watching The Devil Wears Prada ... again.

      Yahoo! Scmuhoo! The sooner the company either closes completely or gets broken up in a fire sale, the better.
      • Why do people always jump to these tirades?

        "Yahoo! Scmuhoo! The sooner the company either closes completely or gets broken up in a fire sale, the better."

        Why? What good would it do the rest of the world to have Yahoo close up shop? What good would it do you? If you don't use their products (I don't, and have no real plan to), then why do you even care? If anything, they at least represent a check (maybe a dubious one, but one nonetheless) on Google in the search and email business.

        I always kindof snicker at people who jump to the "the sooner they close the better" routine, just because they don't agree with a policy decision (and in this case, an internal one at that).
    • Googlers don't telecommute

      I think she simply bring Google culture over to Yahoo. Googlers don't telecommute. In the mean time, there are many studies showing telecommuters are actually more productive. It is obviously Mayer and Google do not think so. Which is true?

      I would not insult Mayer's and Google's intelligence like some others did here because I believe they have their reasons. It is still controversial if telecommuting workers are more productive. I believe the issue is at measurement. Can managers measure their telecommuting employees' productivity without seeing face to face? It seems Google and Yahoo had not figured this out yet.

      There are actually plenty productivity measurement solutions out there on the market. MySammy is one and RescueTime is another. It's a shame Google and Yahoo can't figure this out and allow their employees to telecommute.
  • Problem is, it depends

    Andrew is talking about people who NEED to be physically together to collaborate. The people who are upset are the ones who DON'T need to be in the office ALL THE TIME to work, and in fact are more productive at home.
    • Oh, I'll bet a fair portion of those people

      are just annoyed that they won't be able to take a quick trip to the store during work hours, or spend time doing laundry, figuring they have their phone with them, so if they get an email, they can answer it back during the spin cycle. Truth is, most people aren't self-motivated enough to be more productive away from a workplace.
      • Looks like Mrs. Meyer has an admirer

        I have mixed feelings about this as I do telecommute, but understand that it is important to interact with one's colleagues (which is why the boss wants me in the office occasionally).

        In my case, the telecommuting is prompted by necessity, as I had to move from San Diego to southern Utah so my wife could breathe. It seems there are fewer smog-emitting where I live now than there are in southern California (but there appear to be enough of them in northern Utah that we have otherwise conservative Republican politicians concerned about air quality; this is a good thing).
        John L. Ries
        • Ack!

          I meant to sarcastically say "smog emitting volcanoes" in memory of the anti-environmentalist who once posted to ZDNet claiming that urban smog was primarily caused by volcanoes, rather than factories or automobiles.
          John L. Ries
        • Same Here

          I get more done at home as a rule. But as a rule I am in the office 2-3 days a week and so it is a good compromise.

          Working from home affords me peace and quiet, no worry of catching my cube mate's cold, and of course savings in fuel costs.

          I know so many people who spend most of their day socializing, smoking, and walking around the office and so I dont see how being in the office adds much value.

          Likewise, most meetings are too long with way too much talking and so I try to avoid these as well.
      • Couldn't disagree more

        Assuming you've the self-discipline -- and you do, if you want to get a paycheck -- then working out of the house is far superior, for you save commuting time. During those extra hours you'd be spending (and the expense, too), you can do more work. You can work late more easily. Work early in the morning more easily. The fact you can take off for 30 minutes to get orange juice or put the wash in, actually is productive, for then you've taken your 'break' and done something to save you more time for WORK.