Is Yahoo wrong about telecommuting?

2013

When one of the world's biggest companies says they want people coming into the office instead of working remotely, you probably should pay attention. When it's one of the leading brands on the internet, it bears serious scrutiny. Yes, Yahoo has decided it wants fewer people telecommuting and more of them - in fact most of them - coming into the office.

A recent item in the Huffington Post caught my eye. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, sent out a memo recently requesting (not very subtly) that people start coming into the office rather than working from home. Her reasoning is thus:

"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."

The internet immediately went crazy, and several employees posted the supposed-to-be-confidential memo, which you can read here in its entirety.

So what exactly does this say about the future of teleworking and virtual collaboration? Not nearly as much as it says about Yahoo's culture and the natural shifts in how companies work.

The pendulum shift is swinging back.

There are constantly shifts in how companies think they should be working. For years, the swing has been towards working from home remotely and saving money on travel, office space and infrastructure. It was going to solve everyone's financial problems, allow companies to hire the best people regardless of location and be so green you could almost hear the trees growing.

Almost inevitably, this went too far. Important meetings weren't held. People who would benefit from working together didn't. Teams never developed the chemistry needed to be truly creative, collaborative and productive. We saw the same thing in outsourcing when many jobs went overseas only to come back when quality, efficiency, or customer relationships suffered.

It says a ton about Yahoo's culture today.

Yahoo as an organization has been through seismic shifts. Take a look at how Meyers' memo refers to the employees. She calls them Yahoos. Personally, I think that's funny and ironic and generally cool. The world needs more Jonathan Swift references. It harkens back to their early days as a rebellious startup. But how many people working there today still feel like they're the insurgents rather than The Establishment?

I don't work there, but I'm guessing that the energy in the hallways of Sunnyvale as well as worldwide don't feel like they did then. Business hasn't been great. Market share is slipping. Meyers is there because things needed to be shaken up. What they were doing didn't work. Which leads us to the final point…

Every organization needs to stop periodically and take inventory of what's working and what's not.

Nearly every organization I know has developed their telecommuting working and communication policy on the fly, with very little forethought. They just woke up one morning and realized that things had changed. What's required is to take a look around and see what's working and what's not, then adjust.

My suspicion is that this is a bit of an overreaction to a legitimate problem. Some people should be together more often than they are. Some people are taking advantage of the convenience of working from home rather than focusing on the outcomes. On the other hand, this will probably result in more turnover than they anticipate, grumbling employees and a tougher time recruiting new people.

I'm not as smart as Marissa Meyers, so I can't judge if this is the appropriate response to the situation or not. What I do know is that, whether you are a huge company or a single project team, constantly monitoring how your team works and occasionally readjusting policies and expectations in small steps is easier than the kind of sturm und drang going on with Yahoo.

When's the last time you looked at your company's policy on working and communicating remotely?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.

Older Comments

As someone who works from home, I have been asked about Marissa Mayer's recent decision about working from home. My first response was that Yahoo is in need of major changes and this may be one of them. Working from home may not be the right thing for Yahoo. I don't really know about other companies such as Apple and Google, for example, but I do know they have incredibly large office campuses with plenty of people co-located. I work for a large global corporation and spend my day working with a geographically diverse staff that could not co-locate to get our jobs accomplished. Often we see companies jump in to the 'tend of the moment' only to pull back later because it does not serve their needs or it has to be refined.

Thanks for being a rational thinker during the flood of Internet memes and Mommy Blogger extreme reactions.

Jay Petel

Good piece Wayne,

Yes, there has been a tremendous uproar in the media about this issue and it’s generally about people’s right to choose. Most commentators (and some employees) are missing the point ' it’s not just about choice of where you work. It’s also about the type of work one does, the culture of the organisation, the personality of the individual, the culture of the country in which they work and the needs of the organisation to achieve results (after all if the company fails, no one gets paid).

As I pointed out earlier this week in “Can you really work anywhere?” there has been a truck load of really good research done on this topic and as you say “Nearly every organization I know has developed their telecommuting working and communication policy on the fly, with very little forethought.”

It would be great if the CEO woke up one morning and said “Let’s have a look at how people work best around here to achieve the results we want. What’s been happening elsewhere that’s been successful and that we can learn from? How could that work here?”

One can live in hope.

Bob Selden Sydney, Australia