Why Teleworking May Not Work for All Organizations - All of the Time

Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer Told Yahoos to Report to the Office

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The pros and cons of allowing employees to work remotely, or telework, have been debated hotly in the work world for years. The current trend supports flexible employee schedules, work accommodations and enabling employees to work at least part of the time remotely.

Telecommuting is increasing as employers consider the costs of providing physical space for employees, the environment, and the work-life balance of employees. In fact, research by Kate Lister, an internationally respected and quoted expert on teleworking (work shifting), and Tom Hamish indicates that regular telecommuting grew by 61% between 2005 and 2009 and that 45% of U.S. jobs are compatible with teleworking part of the time.

It has become commonplace to hear that employers will be unable to recruit the next generation of workers without the flexibility that Gen Y wants from their employer. Additionally, with the war for talent that will occur as employers recruit hard-to-find skills and experiences in upcoming years, they may need to hire employees who can’t move to the employer’s site for lifestyle, family and related reasons that include two career couples.

So, increasingly, the on-the-street wisdom, favors flexible schedules that allow employees to work remotely, at least part of the time. But, once something like working remotely becomes common wisdom among employers, the disadvantages rear their ugly head. And, some disadvantages include working with managers to successfully manage remote employees, maintaining productivity, measurable work, and job compatibility.

Yahoo!’s Teleworking Decree

In this environment, Yahoo!’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, sent a shock wave through the business and media worlds when her Executive Vice President of People and Development, Jacqueline Reses, announced new rules regarding Yahoos working remotely. (Reses, who was hired by Mayer in September 2012 is responsible for leading Human Resources and talent acquisition and corporate and business development.)

"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.
“Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.”

--Taken from the internal memo that Reses sent to all Yahoo! Staff.

According to Forbes, Mayer’s major, early focuses started with:

  • "Free food and iPhones, but high expectations
  • "Focus on breathing new life into the core Yahoo! products which, while still generating good traffic, need better engagement and monetization
  • "Reducing needless bureaucracy
  • "Shipping fast
  • "Focus on the end user
  • "Keeping the ad tech stack"

The new decree which affects several hundred full-time remote employees and unknown numbers of Yahoos who work remotely a couple of days a week comes as Mayer and Reses have had time to learn the culture.

Some early commentary expressed disappointment in the choices Mayer has made as CEO. For example, Lisa Belkin, writing at the Huffington Post, says,

"I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I'd thought that while she was breaking some barriers -- becoming the youngest woman CEO ever lead a Fortune 500 company, and certainly the first to do it while pregnant -- she might take on the challenge of breaking a number of others. That she'd use her platform and her power to make Yahoo! an example of a modern family-friendly workplace. That she would embrace the thinking that new tools and technology deserve an equally new approach to where and how employees are allowed to work.
"Instead she began by announcing that she would take just a two week maternity leave, which might have been all she needed, but which sent the message that this kind of macho-never-slowed-down-by-the-pesky-realities-of-life-outside-the-office was expected of everyone."

The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd also expressed disappointment at Yahoo!’s "great leap backward."

"The 37-year-old super geek with the supermodel looks was the youngest Fortune 500 chief executive. And she was in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. Many women were thrilled at the thought that biases against hiring women who were expecting, or planning to be, might be melting.
"A couple months later, it gave her female fans pause when the Yahoo CEO took a mere two-week maternity pause. She built a nursery next to her office at her own expense, to make working almost straight through easier.

Dowd said further:

"Many women were appalled at the Yahoo news, noting that Mayer, with her penthouse atop the San Francisco Four Seasons, her Oscar de la Rentas and her $117 million five-year contract, seems oblivious to the fact that for many of her less-privileged sisters with young children, telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life."

Telecommuting May Not Support Optimal Collaboration

But, others disagree with teleworking as an optimal solution for collaboration.

"The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’" Google CFO Patrick Pichette said at a talk last week in Australia, "And our answer is: 'As few as possible’ … There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”

Mayer is bucking a trend that many in business see as inevitable. In support of her decision, these factors may have led to the decision.

  • The Yahoo! culture is broken, by many reports. With serial CEOs (six in six years), and inside employees claiming that a lot of the remote employees are disgruntled and low producers, Mayer may feel that she needs to get everyone together to build a new culture from scratch. That’s hard to do with employees whom you rarely see.
  • She comes from a culture, at Google, where telecommuting was discouraged because of the belief in the magic of informal collaboration. She is used to innovating in that environment and saw that it succeeded.
  • Yahoo! is years behind its competitors and Mayer may see this as a way of speeding up innovation and collaboration to bring Yahoo! current in technology times. If the actions of the Board are looked at historically, six CEOs in six years doesn’t send a supportive message to Mayer if she can’t turn the company around – fast.
  • She is willing to lose a percentage of the employees who feel this decision is draconian, unfair, family unfriendly, and backward thinking. This may be her way of downsizing.
  • A famously data-driven decision maker, Mayer who was frustrated by Yahoo! parking lots with few cars at work, checked Virtual Private Network or VPN logs. She determined that teleworking Yahoo! employees were not checking in often enough. According to Nicholas Carson at the Business Insider, she used this data to make her decision.

Does Yahoo!’s Mayer have it right? Only time will tell if she’s making good decisions. But, the decisions that she’s making may be exactly right for Yahoo! right now. Ben Waber, PhD, President/CEO of Sociometric Solutions and author of the forthcoming book, People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work (FT Press, May 2013) says that they are.

Waber, who is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, says that research using sensor and digital communication data and analyzing results provides an understanding of how employees work and collaborate. He argues that working onsite is more productive and Yahoo! has it right for these reasons. He says:

  • ”There's a big difference between telecommuting occasionally and working from home every day of the year. Occasional telecommuting allows people to deal with one-time events and promotes a less stressful work environment. Remote work, however, means that you lack a social connection to your colleagues. In general, this relates to lower job satisfaction for the entire company, higher turnover, and lower productivity.
  • ”There are many long-term benefits of co-location. Bumping into people in the hallway can create new connections that lead to new ideas. By getting to know your colleagues better, you can also find better ways to communicate with them and support them if they have personal problems.
  • "Particularly relevant to Yahoo, in data from a software company we found that remote programming groups were 8% less likely than co-located groups to communicate about critical software dependencies."

Telecommuting and remote employees can work for some organizations quite effectively as I have reported in the past when good decisions and management effectiveness exist. But, for some organizations, the current needs must override the commitment to providing a work setting that takes into consideration the employees' desire to telecommute to balance work and life.

Yahoo!'s traditional mismanagement, fractured culture, environment of failure thinking, and inability to address poor employee performance, call for heroic efforts. Mayer has stood up to the criticism. The rest of us can learn from both her courage and the possibility that telecommuting is not right for every organization - all of the time - or even some of the time.

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