Marissa Mayer, I hear you

Yahoo's new chief executive puts teamwork ahead of telecommuting. Is that so wrong?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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