Goodbye Telecommuting, Hello Success?
How Marissa Mayer Can Evaluate Her Decision at Yahoo

Posted Wednesday, March 6th, 2013| Comments (9) rule

Chris Morett, PhD, MPP
Office of Scheduling and Space Management, Rutgers University
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 848-932-4312

When word got out that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer abolished working from home, the reaction was intense and, with relatively few exceptions, strongly negative. I’m hesitant to lob criticisms at Mayer, though, in part because I can’t claim to know more about her company or the tech sector than she.

I want, instead, to pose some questions. Mayer was clear in her reasons for ending telecommuting-mainly that physical proximity all day, every day, creates a cauldron of creativity and innovation. But there are other questions that would be interesting to answer.

First, how quickly does the marginal benefit of each additional hour at the workplace decline? Assuming a declining marginal benefit, did Yahoo consider a partial end to telecommuting-maybe requiring three days a week in the office? (Or, for more remote employees, 10 or 12 working days a month?) Even two days off would help workers with parents or young children or others who need flexibility, older workers, perhaps?

Second, how will Yahoo evaluate this new policy? What processes and outcomes will be assessed? Will it measure the things that critics claim will suffer, such as recruitment, retention, and worker productivity in their daily tasks? See, for example, the article quoting Brad Harrington, Executive Director of Boston College’s Center on Family and Work.

Third, will the benefit calculation be based on a comparison with the workplace as it was, or with some other alternatives that also could have facilitated collaboration? Mayer may be familiar with one simple but effective tool used at my workplace-Google Docs.

Fourth, speaking of the cost-benefit analysis, how thoroughly has Yahoo considered the costs? Put another way, the memo read, in part, “For the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.” Did Yahoo consider an alternate version of that, such as, “For the rest of us who occasionally take our parents to chemotherapy or accompany them when they are going to the doctor to learn whether they are terminal or not, please use your best judgment…”?

I’m sure Yahoo would protest and say it didn’t mean to impugn time off for those kinds of issues. Even so their emblem of a personal obligation was trivial, and it effectively obliterated reality. Yahoo can demand anything it wants, but it portrayed the sacrifice it is asking for in what seems like a willfully blithe manner.

Finally, if some employees abused Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, would it make more sense to change how the policy was implemented, rather than view it as a failed policy?

These questions are not only fair, but in Yahoo’s best interests. What, then, are the chances of an accurate and actionable self-assessment? Confidence is not inspired by the fact that, to the extent this is about work ethic—and at least one source said it is—the company is resorting to a metric born in a bygone era: face time. That doesn’t exactly suggest a keen interest in careful organizational self-assessment. On the other hand, the spotlight in which Yahoo operates not only invites criticism but also a lot of free advice. Indeed, the two are often one and the same. One hopes Yahoo utilizes the insights and opinions others offer up.

I admit, I hope Yahoo changes its mind about telecommuting. I also hope Yahoo succeeds financially. Fortunately, good evidence suggests these two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

9 responses to “Goodbye Telecommuting, Hello Success?
How Marissa Mayer Can Evaluate Her Decision at Yahoo”

  1. Kevin E. Cahill says:

    Great post. To build upon Questions #2 and #4, markets can be unforgiving, and labor markets are no exception. A potentially significant cost to Yahoo is that it loses its most talented people to competitor employers who recognize the need for work-life fit. What’s worse, try getting these employees back or replacing them in light of this new track record.

  2. Dianne Timmons says:

    I view Yahoo’s policy as being implicitly favoring younger adults, whose parents are likely not at the stage where they need medical care. (Thus, the only reason imaginable for having to work for home is the cable guy). To that extent, it reflects an age bias towards younger employees. Perhaps Yahoo’s policy is based in part on a wish to refine their workforce to exclude older adults who, after all, can leave if they can’t accommodate the new rule.

  3. Jan Hively says:

    It’s interesting to note that Best Buy has just rescinded its “Results Only Work Environment” that evaluated employees solely on performance versus time worked and office attendance. Now, most corporate employees will work the traditional 40-hour week, although managers will have discretion to make exceptions to accommodate some workers. What discourages me about Mayer’s decision is the either/or tone of her comments. That’s pathetic at this time when technology offers so many options for communication — global consensus building, collaboration, etc.

  4. cassie says:

    I view Yahoo’s policy as being unfriendly to technology, the environment, people, and the state and federal budgets. If workers need to be in the building, then they need to be working at the same time for collaboration, they cannot have any type of flexible schedule. Other than carpooling which adds on even more time and coordination, there is no other solution but to require these workers to travel at the same time. This increases the need for roads and road and bridge maintenance which in turn comes out of the government budgets. It also increases the pollution to the air and excessive gas used during traffic congestion. Is Yahoo going to pay to clean up the environment as well and pay for additonal roads?
    If a company like Yahoo promoting all of these sharing programs can’t allow teleworking, what is the need for these programs to begin with? Why would I buy any of their products?
    To top it off, she built a nursery for her child next to her office so she can be near her child but no one else can at the company. It would be one thing if she built a childcare facility just for the workers, but instead she’s setting up a double standard for herself only. That is sure to backfire.
    For the mom who thinks you don’t have to work 24-7 if you work in an office, think again. It’s the same for everyone these days just like it is for being a mom or taking care of someone sick, etc. Why do we try to segregate who we are from one activity to the other. We should commit to completing tasks, but we don’t need to pretend we are someone we aren’t. If I’m working I’m still a mom and a caretaker for my mom and if I’m at home, I’m still an employee etc. Understanding others is how we really learn to solve the world’s problems. You can’t do that if you’re judging everyone from a bubble.

  5. Chris Morett says:

    Regarding Kevin’s comment about markets, it will indeed be interesting to see what happens to Yahoo in the race for talent now that the firm isn’t as competitive on this dimension as it had been. If there is a detrimental effect on recruitment and retention, I wonder–as does Dianne–if it will vary by generation (I’m thinking of the survey results that suggest the importance of quality of worklfe to millennials).

    I would also ask this: even if there is no competitive harm that comes of the abolition of flextime, what are the other reasons why the firm might consider keeping the telework policy in place? One reason would be altruism. Another would be a sense of equality, insofar as the end of this policy undoubtedly skews in the anti-older worker and anti-parent direction. Yet another would surround a discussion of whether Yahoo wants to be a leader in society–to achieve not just success, but greatness. A firm doesn’t have to have great work-life balance to be considered great, or a leader in society. I’m merely suggesting that companies that reach such a status often stand out in ways that go beyond the balance sheet or the stock price.

    Finally, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this presages how innovative Yahoo will be in their core businesses. As far as HR policies go, this seems to be a default position, a defensive posture rooted in the past. As I suggested above, it’s entirely possible that a firm can be one thing (in this case, creative/innovative) in some situations but not in others. But it seems that my concerns are in line with what Jan and Cassie say above. I also like Cassie’s point about some of Yahoo’s products and services being used by telecommuters. In this way, Yahoo seems to be broadly contravening its own products and services–perhaps one more thing to be considered in a cost-benefit analysis (although it’s hard to measure precisely).

    A final point, perhaps unrelated to the above. If we take it as a given that, all else equal, a dynamic economy is better than a static one, then job losses are necessary. The negative, of course, are the personal and social dislocations that result–when people have to move or experience diminished economic resources. Work flexibility is one way to have the good with not as much of the bad. I’m not saying Marissa Mayer has to care that, say, a bunch of school kids are going to have to leave their school for a new one if their parents move closer to their job at Yahoo. I’m not saying that she has to care that, in the case of divorced parents, some of those kids may also have to live farther way from one parent. But these are the kinds of things that will probably be happening–either that, or increased unemployment in cases where employees want to avert these disruptions.

  6. It’s disappointing that the CEO of such a major and innovative organisation should have such backward and limited views on workplace organisation. There is so much positive evidence out there about the benefits of teleworking for certain types of occupation ie those where we can judge people by their outputs rather than by the hours they sit at their desk in an office.
    Even more disappointing is a review of policy based on the abuses of a minority. So much of our world is dictated by the behaviours of a backward and selfish minority – our insurance premiums are higher than they need to be because of a dishonest minority, our access to services are defined on the basis of who might cheat the system rather than who needs to benefit. We could make a list longer than most of us have the patience to read.
    Senior managers need to lead by example in promoting work-life-balance. This is one leader who is missing an opportunity to build a better workplace

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