We’ve come a long way, baby – or not

over Yahoo!'s recent edict concerning telecommuting. CEO Marissa Mayer decreed, through HR (of course), that "Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices." This is, they rationalize, an attempt to foster "communication and collaboration… [and] insights [that can only] come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings." Furthermore, they generalize that "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

The backlash has been strong. Lisa Belkin wrote on Huffington Post that being "one Yahoo!" does NOT necessarily mean that all teams must physically work together in the same space. "It did 40 years ago, when work and home were separate realms and workers had the luxury of taking care of one at a time. …It did 20 years ago, when the tools of work were all in the office — all the files and paperwork; the office phone, with the office number, and the cord that didn't reach beyond the cubicle wall….It did before there were studies showing that flexibility improves worker productivity, and morale and health." (Links to studies in Belkin's post.)

The link to this post was flying around Facebook yesterday, so I shared it. In response, a friend shared a link to a piece on SFGate, which claims an insider view. Apparently Yahoo!'s structure is bloated and there are employees who "hide" behind telecommuting. It is believed that some of them are not productive. 

It goes on to note that "Mayer saw another side-benefit to making this move… some remote workers won't want to start coming into the office and so they will quit. That helps Yahoo, which needs to cut costs. It's a layoff that's not a layoff… Bigger picture: This is about Mayer 'carefully getting to problems created by Yahoo's huge, bloated infrastructure.' The company got fat and lazy over the past 15 years, and this is Mayer getting it into fighting shape."


If this is indeed a back-door layoff, I have a problem with that. If performance and productivity are truly the problems, then management could and should address that with a scalpel, through the company's performance management system, instead of wielding an axe. If collaboration is the primary concern, then I say, use videoconferencing and conference calls and fly your remote staff in to the office on a regular basis. But If a layoff is truly needed in order to address bloat and cut costs, then have the guts to execute a real, honest-to-goodness layoff.

I think it's an insult to Yahoo! employees to hide behind the "one Yahoo!" rallying cry.

I don't doubt there are those who take advantage of the conveniences that telecommuting affords. But don't we all know office-based folks who are pros at looking busy when they aren't? Conversely, there are some talented employees who are truly productive and make valuable contributions while working some sort of alternative work schedule, be it telecommuting or flex time or some combination thereof. Perhaps some of them even outproduce their office-based peers.

Unfortunately for Yahoo!, the collateral damage in this case – besides the bad PR – will be the loss of some truly talented and productive folks along with the so-called slackers. 

I believe that within 10 years, plenty of us will look back at the 90s and the 00s and think how quaint it was that we all had to schlep to a central office. With modern technological tools such as videoconferencing, mobile phones, cloud computing and high-speed internet connections now commonplace in most of our homes, many of us are well-equipped to function effectively and productively from a home office.

Like Belkin, I don't believe it makes sense anymore to confine work to a one-size-fits-all work schedule at one specific location. Telecommuting isn't for every employee, nor is it suitable for every job. But where it does make sense, I believe employers would do well to consider alternative schedules on a case-by-case basis. To me, it seems foolish to preclude attracting and retaining top talent by enacting such Draconian measures. What if I'm a top-performer in my company and my spouse gets a dream-job offer in a whole other time zone. Wouldn't my employer be crazy not to consider the possibility of a telecommuting arrangement in order to keep me in my job?

And here's the kicker. By and large, it is WOMEN who have benefited in large numbers by many employers' willingness to extend flexibility to them. So for a female CEO to do this feels, to me, like the proverbial rug has been pulled out from under me and my sisters by one of our own.

I agree that there is something to be gained though in-person teamwork, but I also think Yahoo! is going to regret this approach for many reasons. I'll be watching with interest as events unfold.


3 thoughts on “We’ve come a long way, baby – or not

  1. Being more in mainstream/real life HR than I am, you may have heard this term before, but I did only recently and it really resonated: presenteism…the art of being at work, showing up, but not actually doing anything. You’re present but not contributing.
    I would imagine that Yahoo’s actions may have a disparate impact …that (maybe)more of the people impacted could be females. I’d worry about that if I were in their HR department.
    And I hate it when people can’t or don’t or won’t address performance issues. It creates such a waste of time and energy and “creative solutions” that can be likened to the tail wagging the dog. Deal with the issues head on rather than creating a work around that inadvertently hurts people who are, in fact, performing.
    In other news, I commented on your coffee post but Google ate it up. I was going to say that I had one of those nice marchines..and now all I have is the nifty reusable filter which sits in my $20 Mr. Coffee. Because the other one broke within a year. Hopefully yours will last longer.

  2. Great call, CBW, on the disparate impact. I wonder if the CHRO advised the CEO thusly? And on the coffee, yes, I thought maybe I got one like the one you loathe. But so far we are pleased, quite pleased, with ours. I guess time will tell…..

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