Futures Rambling # 68

by Laurie Aznavoorian

It was quite refreshing at last week’s Corenet summit in Shanghai to eavesdrop on conversations about something other than ABW; unfortunately, the topic that captured people’s interest and undeserved media coverage was nearly as yawn generating and misguided as the whole foolish ABW debate. What was the topic that has jaws wagging? The edict passed by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer that Yahoo employees could no longer work from home.

In the event you were in a coma, Mayer has insisted all Yahoo employees go to work! Good Lord, what a shock. It has proven to be so controversial in the US that a national debate has ignited over workplace flexibility, family and women’s rights. The debate came dangerously close to eclipsing more entertaining stories such as Dennis Rodman playing basketball with Kim Jong Un or the ‘budget sequestration’. That’s the new name for the abyss entered when you go over a fiscal cliff.

There is great speculation as to why Mayer made this decision and what she intended by insisting all 5000+ employees of Yahoo physically go the Sunnyvale office in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some have suggested the real catalyst was correcting abuses; it seems 200 employees work full time from home. Some of them have proven to be expert multi-taskers, not only do they pick up a yahoo pay check, but run their own companies on the side. Others say the move was designed to build moral and improve employee motivation, as well as place a focus on innovation and collaboration. Most likely all of these contributed to the CEO’s decision.

The indisputable facts are the company missed two of the biggest trends on the internet: social and mobile, its home page and email are losers, Facebook and Google have trounced them when it comes to selling advertising and the stock price is in the crapper. It is understandable that morale is low and that the company’s culture could use a reboot. Apparently it is so bad that employees won’t even admit working for Yahoo when they go to Friday night beers at the Silicon Valley geek bars.

What is disappointing is many of the sentiments that have emerged in this debate are unreasonable, one is the link between a proactive decisions made by a CEO to reverse a downward trajectory and an attempt to right the wrongs plaguing the business, with an all encompassing value judgment on flexible working and women’s equality. These two are not related; allowing the company to fail would be far more alarming than asking 200 people to come to work and one could argue company insolvency would have a far more devastating impact on 5000 employees and their families.

It is only mildly ironic, and doesn’t bode well for Mayer, that she a nursery built next to her office in the Sunnyvale headquarters. This affords her the luxury of having her infant son by her side, releasing her from the angst many working mothers experience. Not many employees would have the latitude to impact facilities in this way, not to mention the funds. She did pay for it herself; she has accumulated a sizable nest egg from her past job as a Google executive. Is it too much of a stretch to compare this to extravagances of other CEO’s whose club memberships and golf games go unquestioned?

A host of arguments both for and against working from home surrounds this debate. According to a Stanford University study performance improved by 13% for one business who allowed employees to work at home, few can deny the convenience of wandering downstairs to work in your undies, or beat the commute times. Some managers claim having employees working at home is better because it forces them to set clear goals and review progress more frequently eliminating both employee and manager from becoming delusional over work quality and what has actually been accomplished.

Additional benefits include retaining talent that may not have the ability to physically go into the office every day, or who choose to live in remote locations. Most arguments against home work stem from an inability to compartmentalize and create appropriate separations between home and work and a not unfounded fear that ‘good work’ is tough to accomplish when employees are watching reruns of Green Acres, putting in a load of laundry or changing nappies.

The downfalls of working at home can often be overcome with the right technology, personal habits and the right company mindset. Often overlooked in the debate about working at home is the need for everyone in the team to communicate online, even if only one team member is remote. This ensures the locus of control and decision making is outside the office. Otherwise the remote worker will be left out, have minimal input on decisions and feel disconnected and the company will run the risk of becoming politically unbalanced.

Most of us crave the social interaction going to work brings and make the decision to work at home only on occasion: to complete a task requiring special focus, care for a sick child or meet the cable guy. There are few managers (including managers at Yahoo) who prohibit some degree of personal choice and mobility if it helps an employee balance personal and work needs; however, there still are many managers who will not allow their employees these freedoms.

Sadly, the uproar over Mayer’s decision steers us away from the real issues of integrating work and family life and addressing the impact that it has to economic, social and political outcomes. Working from home plays a role in retaining employees in a shrinking talent pool and solves other productivity problems. There is no question that increasing the range of possibilities and choice for workers and weeding out managers who are too lazy, or selfish, to allow their employees some degree of choice will help society, the economy, our families and communities.

A friend and ex employee of a multinational financial institution chimed in on the debate stating “Why do they think telecommuting was a humanistic vision in the first place!  It was an economic decision to reduce real estate costs.  Now the corporations all have excess real estate (at inflated rents that make buying out leases less than great for the balance sheet) – so they can call all the sheep back to the pen without great expense and cull the herd after appropriate observations.”

That view, while being admittedly cynical, is not entirely wrong and serves to remind us of the context in which Mayer’s decision should be considered. What we should be asking is as the CEO of a faltering company in need of cultural transformation, was it an appropriate choice to make? Many I’ve talked to in the past weeks say yes, they covertly whisper that it is better to keep people together and on the same page, especially in quickly changing times, they are too scared to say this out loud for fear of being tarred with the same brush as Mayer.

Today organisational trust in a company is built from the bottom of the company up; it has evolved from the dictatorship models of the past to one of leadership. We look up to our company and its leaders and formulate trust bonds based on their reaction to external forces, such as the GFC, an oil spill or simply negative PR. We trust our leaders if we agree with their reactions and actions, consider them fair and in alignment with what we believe are the company values and of course our own personal values.

If Mayer demonstrated a failure in leadership, it had less to do with her decision which most think will help the company out of its dire straits and more to do with communicating its context to both employees and the media. Had this been done, it is possible a whole lot of worry and boring debate may have been avoided; we could focus on the issues of work / life balance and affordable child care and have gone to Corenet and talked about other more salient topics like the Kardasians.

Sources:

Chaey, Christina; “Marissa Mayer, Yahoo, And The Pros and Cons of Working From Home” Fast Company Online; March 7, 2013

Wakeman Cy; “Is Yahoo Right to Ban Working From Home?” Forbes On line, March 7, 2013

Essig, Todd; “Bodies Matter: The Inconvenient Truth In Marissa Mayer Banning Telecommuting At Yahoo”

Friedman, Stew; “We Are All Part of the Work_Life Revolution” HBR Online; March 15, 2013

Fullerton, David; “Seven Great Reasons To Encourage Working Remotely” Fast Company; March 1, 2013

Greenfield, Rebecca; “Marissa Mayer’s Work-from-Home Ban Is Working for Yahoo, and That’s That”; Atlantic Wire; March 6, 2013

Larson Leslie, Peterson Hayley and Reuters Reporters; “Yahoo! Boss Marissa Mayer Under Fire for Building Personal Nursery Next to Her Office – Before Telling Employees They Can NOT Work From Home; Mail On-line February 27, 2013