The recent decision by Marissa Mayer to abolish telecommuting at Yahoo has sparked a firestorm of criticism and debate in social media platforms and executive suites, and put a spotlight on the increasingly accepted practice of virtual work. You can review a good summary of the polemic here. Certainly, at first glance the policy change seems to go against prevailing workplace trends and HR logic – where maximized work-life balance fosters more happy, productive employees. Telecommuting is a growing trend and seems a boon to both employees and companies alike (statistics I’ve seen suggest productivity increases with flexible work arrangements.)
This response - from none other than Richard Branson – is fairly typical of the strong negative reactions to the Yahoo move, which suggest the blunt directive is anachronistic and short-sighted. Some of the criticisms have even questioned Mayer’s feminist bona-fides – such as Maureen Dowd’s column suggesting Mayer’s gilded work arrangement may be clouding her understanding of the needs of other working women. It should be noted not all the comments were negative. Several like this one featured Yahoo insiders who praised the move, suggesting there were too many slackers taking advantage of the loose workplace rules. Other commentators argued that the company’s growth and survival trumps any workplace conveniences.
One of the realities that I found missing in some of the comments is that in all flexible workplaces – in particular those promoting working from home – there’s always been an implied, or formal contract, featuring one or all of the following requirements:
- There’s no blanket policy – Each job/role should be evaluated if and how it lends itself to telecommuting, and in many cases senior leaders or group leaders understand their roles preclude being based off-site for extended periods of time.
- Productivity trumps convenience – If a case can be made the efficiency and output of employees is suffering due to telecommuting, then the policy should be revisited.
- It’s not all of nothing – Most people I’ve worked with over the years operated in a blended routine that includes both virtual work (from the home or other outposts) and occasional face-to-face interaction, such as quarterly meetings or special retreats.
- Circumstances change…and so may your job – Employees must recognize that workplace policies are fluid and can (and must) change to ensure they remain viable and relevant in the context of the company’s evolving performance and objectives. The fact that telecommuting is a policy now is not a guarantee or excuse for keeping it in perpetuity.
In defense of Yahoo’s blanket ban on working from home, many of the negative comments seem to conveniently ignore the company is on a steady downhill towards irrelevance and possible oblivion. Yahoo’s leaders made a strong case that business as usual wasn’t working and dramatic change was required not just to boost productivity, but also collaboration and innovation – both of which benefit greatly from sustained in-person interaction. Furthermore, company leaders are leaving the door open to further adjustments, saying this is the right solution for right now.
As I thought further about this issue, however, I looked at my own situation, where work with global partners via Skype or other interactive platforms is the norm, and productivity rarely seems compromised by the lack of face-to-face interaction. In fact, the inherent flexibility of a virtual team has often been a boon to our performance – with more than one Skype call featuring folks at the breakfast table or quietly baby-sitting their children. Is it helpful to have in-person meetings on occasion? Certainly. But does that prelude a balanced model where virtual work is allowed for more routine work and collaboration. It should not.
In the final analysis, I believe Mayer could have taken a more nuanced, incremental approach, starting with a more disciplined policy and closer monitoring to weed out the worst abusers, but she likely felt that lacked the urgency the dire situation required. Ultimately, I think her blunt approach will backfire – if she doesn’t retreat from the decision altogether. (They left the door open for future changes in the policy, so this is perhaps the most likely outcome.) The unintentional message it sends to employees and prospects is that they can’t be trusted and don’t merit the same flexibility and options that are given to most other technology companies – particularly those based in Silicon Valley. After all, though productivity is certainly paramount it cannot be achieved without employee engagement and goodwill. Given this context, Mayer may win the immediate battle for innovation, but lose the longer war for talent.