Vote against telecommuting not about trust, but camaraderie

Yahoo angered many of its staff when it banned home-working, but this dramatic step--while widely unpopular--may be what it is needed to rebuild employee camaraderie and rebuild a sense of belonging in the ailing company.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer angered many of her staff over the weekend when she put a stop to home working and ordered all employees to operate out of the office from June this year.

Not surprisingly, her critics hit hard, fast and furious, with many calling her out over the regressive step in the current connected era, especially for a company which core business is the Internet.

Virgin head honcho Richard Branson described the move as "perplexing" and "backward", while Forbes called it an "epic fail" which would lead to mediocre and stressed out employees--though it pointed out that Yahoo did seem to have a productivity problem, clocking just US$344,758 revenue per employee compared to Google's US$931,657.

Some people I spoke with this week said it was obvious Mayer had a "trust issue", and argued that the office should be just a transient place where you would go in to do your job and then leave. One where you don't have permanent desks and instead, have roving "hot desks" which are used by employees on a first-come-first-serve basis and where you don't get to put up photos of your dogs or kids.

I don't agree that it's simply a trust issue, or rather the lack of. Instead, I think Yahoo's home-working ban will go a long way in rebuilding its corporate culture and restore a sense of employee camaraderie.

One of the first things I learnt in journalism school was the importance of "newsroom socialization". In the newsroom, reporters can bounce story ideas of one another, exchange pieces of information which may benefit another, and discuss any issues they may have encountered in their news-gathering. It creates a sense of buzz and urgency in the newsroom that cannot be re-created in a home- or remote-work environment.

Indeed there are many collaborative and conferencing tools available today to support a mobile and remote workforce. And it is true we can be just as productive working from home with the support of tools such as instant messaging and online whiteboards, and we can easily hop on a video-conference call with colleagues to discuss projects or thrash out issues.

However, most of the time, this environment of collaboration leaves little time for "idle" chitchat since everyone on the call is focused on the main agenda at hand. It's a pity because some of the most innovative ideas are born out of casual conversations and lunchtime chats. Why else would companies like Google take such pride in creating offices decked out with "sharing cubes", pool tables, pianos, cafes, and "microkitchens" to encourage employees to hang out and brainstorm.

Fans of former hit TV sitcom Friends would also recall the episode where Rachel felt left out at her new workplace because she didn't smoke and important work decisions were being made by her colleagues--without her input--during their smoke breaks. Anxious to be part of this decision-making process, she then pretended to be a smoker so she could hang out and establish rapport with her colleagues.

Humans by nature are social beings. We thrive best when there are others around with which to collaborate and exchange thoughts. How else could we have a watercooler moment?

Yahoo is a broken company which needs to rebuild a sense of belonging, camaraderie, especially after employees saw a change of four CEOs in as many years. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together," said the company's HR head Jackie Rese in an internal memo announcing the decision. "We want everyone to participate in our culture... From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing, I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices... Being a Yahoo isn't just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices."

Sure, the memo sounded a tad patronizing when it urged employees to "use your best judgment" should they want to stay home for the cable guy. Yahoo also should have considered building childcare centers and other employee support facilities in its Sunnyvale headquarters, as well as offices around the globe, to better help their employees make the transition back into the office.

But whether or not Mayer made the decision due to a lack of trust in her employees isn't the point here. Ultimately, her decision may eventually prove to be what the company needs to pull its dysfunctional workforce together, re-establish employee camaraderie, and fix its ailing staff morale.

Dropbox creator and CEO Drew Houston said in a recent video promoting the importance of teaching programming: "To get people to code, we try to make the office as awesome as possible."


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