How to avoid yahoo's telecommuting chaos

Mar 04 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

When a news story hits the internet and makes a splash, some people lose their darned minds. That seems to be the case with Yahoo's announcement that it wants more people to come into the office and quit working from home. Some people think it's a wise decision and it's about time we put a short leash on those slackers working their pajamas and too lazy to come into work like grownups. Some are convinced it's the coming of the Evil Empire and are screaming about the inherent unfairness of it all.

The point is, the conversations Yahoo is having in public are being replicated on a less dramatic basis hundreds of times a day. As I pointed out in the last column, I don't know what's right for Yahoo. Unless you are an employee, shareholder or manager there, neither do you and it's basically none of your darned business. What we can do, however, is make an educated guess at some of the challenges that led to this decision and the associated drama. Maybe we can avoid some of the trauma.

Basically, the way I read it, there are several challenges they are trying to address. This is only a guess based on three things: the limited reporting I've read on the topic, my work with dozens of clients in similar situations, and a basic understanding of human nature. If anyone with actual knowledge of the situation there can weigh in, I'd appreciate it:

By the time Yahoo figured out there was a problem, it was too late to take small measures. With all the leadership changes and declining sales, people were too worried about the day to day tasks to take the long view. They were too busy working. Each team works in its own way, reporting in and managing its own tasks and work as well as it can and minding their business.

Only when deadlines are missed, turnover increases or there's some other highly visible signs of dysfunction across the organization do people stop what they're doing to ask "what the heck is going on?" Obviously, the Leadership there decided drastic measures were necessary to correct the problems.

The biggest complaint seemed to be about a lack of collaboration and team spirit. This is a common problem with workforces that aren't co-located. Here's the thing to remember, though. While it's not uncommon to have remote or separated workteams feel distant from each other, it's not a foregone conclusion that will happen.

As we've pointed out many times in this blog, there is a difference between remote distance (people are working together but are physically separated by time and distance) and virtual distance (people lack the human and organization connections that lead to productive working relationships). Many teams can function this way, obviously Yahoo could not.

Remember our motto around here- Genghis Khan ruled half the known world and never held a WebEx meeting. It can be done, it just ain't easy. Which leads us to the last point:

Management wasn't paying attention to the team dynamics, and that's on them. Were people working from home because they could be more productive, or because they just didn't like the atmosphere at the office and didn't want to go in? Were they working together effectively? How did they feel about what was going on with their team, their bosses and the company?

My guess is that those conversations weren't happening. Yes, the boss would check in that the Thompson report was on track, but didn't ask the hard, time-consuming but critical questions about how people were feeling about their work and what was going on with the company.

There are plenty of warning signs that a virtual team is in trouble, but it takes honesty and hard work to spot them. (You can read a white paper on the Three Reasons Virtual Teams Fail, here).

This last point is important. As Marissa Mayer points out, you get a lot of information just walking the halls and sharing lunch together. Managers who don't have that opportunity need to create ways to manage by virtually walking around. That isn't a natural thing for many of us. Training and guidance can help prepare leaders for that new environment. My guess is, there wasn't much of either provided to managers in this case.

Maybe getting people together physically will help re-create the startup Yahoo spirit. Maybe it will just tick off enough employees they go into a full-blown morale and turnover crisis. It will be fascinating to watch. Maybe, though, this can be an object lesson to those of us project and team managers who want to avoid things coming to such an ugly crisis point.

So how are things where you work? Are you sure?

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.