Yahoo: Fix your culture and get better telecommuting tools

Banning Yahoo employees from telework will not be a quick fix for ex-Googler Marissa Mayer. If anything, it will worsen morale and cause the company's best and brightest to look elsewhere for employment.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

As it has been covered widely in the press already, fresh Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who was once the head of search and user experience technology at Google, has now put the kibosh on telecommuting on all employees that have work from home arrangements.

Some of my colleagues feel that this is a good thing, that this was a pragmatic decision and that Mayer should be applauded for it.

I disagree. If anything, this decision will hasten the company's rise to irrelevance as an online player and cause a mass exodus of whatever talented employees the company has left.

I will preface this by stating that Ms. Mayer has recently expressed her dissatisfaction with the search partnership Yahoo has with my employer, Microsoft, so my comments here could be easily misconstrued as sour grapes endorsed by Redmond. Which they are not.

I want to remind everyone that this is my column, my articles are strictly in the area of opinion and not reporting, and my comments are my own and should never be interpreted as anything coming out of Microsoft's official channels.

For the past seven years, while I have been in the employ of three different large corporations (all of which are in the technology sector) I have also been a full-time telecommuter. This has not been out of choice, but out of necessity and the way my previous (and current) employers defined their employment contracts.

Mayer's assertion that remote workers aren't as effective as the ones that work at the mother ship or in an office environment has proven to be false by some of the largest companies in the world, including the one I work for.

But forget the fact that Microsoft has some incredible tools like Office 365, Exchange 2013 and Lync 2013 which I use every single day to collaborate with my colleagues and get my work done. Let's talk about what I used to do.

For five years, I worked for IBM. Prior to that I worked for UNISYS, for two years. In both cases, I was home-based, because I was engaged in their professional services businesses and that involved travel to customers.

At IBM Global Technology Services, I spent about 50 percent of my time at home, working with colleagues on the phone and using various other teleworker technologies such as Lotus Notes and Sametime Unyte, and the other 50 percent onsite with customers -- all while still collaborating with geographically dispersed colleagues, many of which operated out of their homes.

My job at IBM simply would not have been possible if I was not a mobile teleworker. On a much larger scale, it would have been extremely impractical for IBM to secure large amounts of office space for people who work a large percentage of the time away from the office.

As the company transitioned from being a hardware business in the 1990s to one of predominantly software and services that composed approximately 80 percent of its revenue, the need to down-size real estate assets became much more apparent. Large facilities were closed down in favor of having employees work from home part time or full time, and a lot of office space was rented out to other companies.

590 Madison Avenue, for example, which has been IBM's primary office in New York City for as long as I can remember, is now almost entirely rented out to other companies. The last time I checked, Big Blue only operates a few floors in that building.

That doesn't mean that IBM's New York City presence is small by any stretch of the imagination, it simply means that most of Big Blue in the Big Apple is out in front of customers and working from home. Making money.

You could say the same about their other large New York facilities, such as the international corporate HQ at Armonk, their datacenter operations at Poughkeepsie, or their US regional headquarters in Somers. All of these are far less than filled to capacity.

The point of all of this is that if you enable your employees with the right tools and the right philosophy, virtual teams can be just as effective as cube farms, and more often than not it saves the company an awful lot of money. 

When I joined IBM, I was given a textbook that was mandatory reading for every single person in my 100+ person business unit -- Virtual Teams that Work, by Cristina Gibson and Susan G. Cohen.

It was published in 2003 and unfortunately hasn't been updated yet or released in an electronic format, but it is still a very good book and I suggest that anyone who has to manage remote employees or be a remote worker read it.

Ms. Mayer would be doing herself a disservice by not at least glancing through a few chapters.

I realize of course that Yahoo is not a global professional services or a software company on the scale of an IBM or a Microsoft, and that much of the company's employees are based out of the Silicon Valley area, just like at her former company, Google.

Ms. Mayer is probably used to the type of close-knit teaming and round the clock hacking and college dormitory-like cohabitation that occured at Google, but that company has completely different dynamics than Yahoo, it operates at a much larger scale than Yahoo, and also provides significant perks to its employees to improve work/life balance in order to induce them to spending a lot of time on campus.

Yahoo does not currently foster this kind of environent that exists at Google. Or a Facebook.

Yahoo is no Google, and it would be a steep climb up for them to be able to re-make themselves into one nor a good idea to try to replicate the company's culture and business model. And I am inclined to agree with my industry colleague Wayne Rash at eWeek that this teleworking ban is a last ditch attempt to return the company  to its 1990's glory days.

Yahoo can become a healthy and profitable company again, but by doing so it needs to cut costs, become leaner and meaner, and come out with differentiated service offerings than Google. Allowing as many of their employees to work from home is one of the most sensible things they can do to affect the bottom line.

Given the fact that many of their employees are engaged in the act of web/cloud-based software development, and knowing that the general personality traits of these folks are that they tend to work weird hours, it makes zero sense to impose a centralized corporate 9 to 5 working day on them even if you have 24-hour working facilities.

They require flexible schedules in order to be productive, and the easiest way for many of them to do this is to work remotely. Combined with scheduled, periodic in-face teaming exercises which help in real-world relationship building, the teleworker formula does work.

And as I said, Yahoo doesn't currently have the ability to offset such issues as child care for working moms, sleeping arrangements, and the top-notch food service that Google has, among other perks which enables them to be centralized and spending a lot of time at the mother ship.

Ms. Mayer, if you end telework, your most senior and most talented developers who you negotiated work from home arrangements with will simply circulate their resumes elsewhere in Silicon Valley, or to other companies outside the Bay Area which have no problem with them working remotely.

That may very well be your intention to reduce headcount, but it may not yield the bottom line results you think it will.

Will Yahoo ending its telework arrangements with its employees result in company brain drain and reduce worker effectiveness? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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