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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's misstep

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  • Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced plans to force Yahoo's few hundred remote workers to relocate to its offices.

      Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced plans to force Yahoo's few hundred remote workers to relocate to its offices.
    associated press/November 2009

 
 

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It was nearly a decade ago that I stopped going into the office every day. I worked at a competing Web magazine at the time, and my bosses didn't really care how I worked, as long as I got stuff done. At first, like many people, I began working from home because I was lazy. By skipping my hourlong commute, I gave myself more time to sleep in and goof off. And without anyone watching over me, the goofing off was sure to be epic.

But I quickly realized that, counter to my intentions, working at home made me more productive. Without office distractions -- listening to other people's phone calls, bantering with the receptionist, figuring out where and with whom to go to lunch -- I could report and write much faster. Telecommuting also freed me from pointless office commitments. For instance, I could call in to meetings, mute my line, and then do more important things with my time.

When I tell people that I work at home, they usually assume one of two things -- that I'm un- or underemployed and just biding my time until I get a real job, or that I possess a monkish, single-minded devotion to work that they suggest is required for successful telecommuting. Neither is true. Instead, I've realized that, once you learn how to do it, working at home is superior in almost every way. It allows me to be better at my job and at my life -- to be a more productive employee and a not-terrible husband and dad.

You might work differently. Maybe your mind is best primed by conversations with your co-workers about "Downton Abbey." That's fine. The point -- and this is hardly groundbreaking -- is that different people work differently. Any organization whose success depends on maximizing its workers' productivity ought to allow their employees some degree of flexibility.

That brings us to Yahoo's ridiculous new ban on working from home. Last week, All Things D's Kara Swisher reported that Marissa Mayer, the beleaguered Web company's new CEO, will force Yahoo's few hundred remote workers to relocate to its offices. In a memo Swisher obtained, the company's human-resources chief allows workers to "occasionally" stay home to "wait for the cable guy," but otherwise requires people -- I'm sorry, "Yahoos" -- to submit to "the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices." Because this was an HR memo and therefore freed from any requirement to be truthful, it went on to declare that "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home." It added: "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

Mayer is going to regret this decision. It's myopic, unfriendly and so boneheaded that I worry it's the product of spending too much time at the office. (She did, after all, build a nursery next to her office to house her new baby). It's not just that the policy completely elides the virtues of working from home. Numerous studies have found that people can be more productive when they're allowed to work away from the office. One, released this month by researchers at Stanford, showed that when Chinese call-center employees were allowed to work from home, their performance increased by 13 percent. Considering such gains, it's likely that Yahoo's new ban will force remote workers to alter their work lives in a way that will lower their productivity.

It will also put Yahoo at odds with just about every other tech company in Silicon Valley -- firms that don't impose such rules on working from home, and with whom Yahoo competes for talent.

The larger problem with the ban is its apparent cluelessness about how creative work occurs. Marissa Mayer is said to be a devoted office worker. Both her admirers and critics call her a workaholic, a woman who's gotten ahead not just through talent but also by working longer hours than most other people. Yahoo is a Web and media company, a firm teeming with engineers, designers, writers and editors -- people whose work cannot only be accomplished remotely, but who may find working at home to be a better way to get things done. This decision suggests that Mayer doesn't understand one of the most basic ideas about managing workers -- that different people work in different ways, and that some kinds of pursuits are inhibited, rather than improved, by time in the office.

The working-from-home ban also reveals that Mayer doesn't know how to measure her workers' performance. Swisher quotes a source who says that Mayer has been "irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty by 5 p.m." This is a classic bad-manager misconception -- that a full parking lot means people are getting stuff done. And it's easy for employees to game that system. If my boss makes it clear that she's looking for my car in the parking lot in the evenings and on weekends, all I've got to do to get noticed is spend a lot of time at the office. Sure, this will ruin the rest of my life, but otherwise it's easy -- as long as I'm in the office, even if I'm just playing solitaire, I know I'll be making a good impression.

By contrast, allowing workers to work from anywhere pushes managers to look at more important measurements of productivity. As David Fullerton, the vice president of engineering at the Web firm Stack Exchange, explained in a recent blog post extolling the virtues of remote working, "As a manager, I can't easily know how many hours each person on my team is working. This is actually good for me because it forces me to look at what they've done."

One theory behind Yahoo's office-only policy is that it's an effort to combat the firm's bloat; the firm, one ex-Yahoo told Business Insider, has been beset by people who claim to be working remotely but just don't ever get things done. But if that's the case, then why use this blunt instrument? Why not just fire the people who aren't doing their work?

One last thing: Yahoo's HR memo defends its working-from-home ban by pointing to the improvement in "collaboration and communication" that stems from being in the office. This is a reference to a long line of research pointing to the benefits of propinquity -- when people from different disciplines interact with one another, they come up with brilliant ideas together.

Yahoo's memo seems to suggest there's a tension between the productivity gains to be had from remote working and the collaborative spirit fostered by people in proximity to one another. But that doesn't have to be the case. Companies with flexible policies can allow people to work at home a few days a week and from the office on other days.

I suspect that in time, the distinction between working in the office and working at home will fade away. We'll all be able to work from anywhere, at any time, and our work will be assessed by what we produce, not how much time we spend doing it. Except at Yahoo, where the only thing that counts is showing up.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society."

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