3 Ways Yahoo's Marissa Mayer Did Us A Huge Favor

Yahoo’s decision to nix remote working provides an opportunity to challenge the misguided, faulty reasoning many leaders follow when they decide to revoke support for flexible work.

This recent news of Yahoo’s backward and misguided reversal on remote work provoked intense outrage: “Why would Marissa Mayer do this? It makes no sense.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to share in the collective shock, because Yahoo’s decision is not that unusual.

Over the years, I’ve seen many leaders and organizations follow the same path even though employees value the ability to work remotely, and there’s a solid argument that telework actually benefits the business.

The difference is that those leaders don’t have a high profile and aren’t under the same public scrutiny as Mayer; therefore, their decisions go unnoticed and unchallenged.

Rather than singling out and criticizing Mayer, we should thank her for raising the veil. Yahoo’s decision gives us the opportunity to expose and challenge the misguided, faulty reasoning many leaders follow when they decide to revoke their support for flexible work.

Going forward, perhaps others will think twice before falling into the three most common traps:

“I’m just not that into it.” Some leaders just prefer to have everyone in the same office. You can present stacks and stacks of research showing a strong correlation between telework and productivity, cost savings, etc. Doesn’t matter.

They just keep repeating, “I like to be able to walk down the hall and find someone at their desks if I need them.” And they will often add, “Plus, I don’t like to work from home.” Translation: It’s not going to happen, because I’m just not that into it.

With Yahoo, there may be an added twist. Marissa Mayer came from Google. Google encourages creativity and flexibility, but they want people to work on the Google campus, not from home. (I find it interesting that the same level of outrage hasn’t been directed at Google’s lack of support for remote work.)

Mayer may believe that this campus-based flexibility contributes to Google’s success. Under intense pressure from investors, she could be trying to replicate that model at Yahoo, although re-creating a culture is much harder than simply revoking the ability to work remotely.

It’s not working, and we don’t have the resources to figure out how to fix it. So let’s just forget it. I have not worked directly with Yahoo; however, from what I’ve read it sounds like the organization made two common mistakes:

  • They didn’t invest the time, people, or money up front to create the extra layer of systems and measures required to coordinate and monitor teleworkers. The level of that investment depends upon the size and reach of the remote workforce. If you have many teleworkers, then you need to make a sizable investment, or cracks will emerge, especially under financial pressure.
  • They didn’t continue to review and refresh their flexible work strategy. You can’t roll out telework and then forget it. Agreements with each employee must be revisited and adjusted regularly. The overall communication, coordination, and collaboration protocols have to be monitored and improved continuously. If you don’t, again, cracks will appear.
All of this takes time, people, and money to do well. Although shortsighted, when an organization like Yahoo is under intense pressure on all of three fronts, it’s easier for leaders to say, “let’s just forget it,” than fix it. Unfortunately, this may be a penny wise, but pound-foolish choice, especially if telework is already entrenched in your culture.

The business is in trouble; therefore, work flexibility must be part of the problem. If we get rid of the flexibility, the business will improve. This common faulty logic occurs when results are weak and there wasn’t a strong, clear “why” behind remote work to begin with.

Work flexibility will succeed only if an organization’s underlying fundamentals are solid and everyone clearly understands how flexible work helps to achieve the goals of the business.

Yahoo is in deep trouble, which is why Mayer was brought in to turn it around. And in the internal memo announcing the reversal on telework, it was referred to as a “benefit,” which translates into “nice-to-have, but optional.” This is the weakest possible supporting business case.

When results aren’t as expected and the business rationale for telework is unclear, it’s easy for leaders to target the flexibility as being a source of the problem, rather than fixing the business strategy and using flexible work to execute it.

Where do Yahoo and CEO, Marissa Mayer, go from here? They need to carefully reexamine their true motivations behind the decision. And then either communicate their rationale again, more clearly and with supporting data or rethink their chosen course of action.

Where do we and other leaders go from here? We have to recognize that this decision by Yahoo, albeit misguided and off the mark, is not unusual. Instead of directing shock and disappointment at Mayer specifically, let’s use this episode to shine a light on the faulty assumptions many leaders follow to take similar actions.

Now that they are aware of the common traps, hopefully other leaders will think twice before repeating the mistake. What do you think?

Related: The Real Reasons No One At Yahoo Will Be Working From Home

--Cali Williams Yost has been pioneering ways to lead flexible workplaces in the new economy for nearly two decades. As a consultant, speaker, and CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, she shows organizations and individuals how to partner for award-winning flexible work success. She is the author of the recently released Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, (Center Street/Hachette, January 2013). Connect on her Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Pulled Plug Image: Fussypony via Shutterstock]

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27 Comments

  • Henry

    The digital interconnectedness of our world has eroded boundaries. No longer do we truly separate our work time from our family or home time. To wit, we can do pretty much everything at home, coffee shop, restaurant, or park that we could do at home. Problem is, we have trouble separating all those areas. Having some separation, or a boundary, helps us, I believe, be more productive and efficient. Having time at work also enables us to work more creatively and interpersonally. Aside from serious health or family considerations, time a work, away from home or other "third places," probably makes more sense for us than we might want to admit.

  • AllisonOKelly

    You make an excellent point—while many of Mayer’s decisions require scrutiny, the fact that she is blowing the conversation wide open and stirring this debate is a good thing. It gives us an opportunity to talk about specific solutions instead of expecting every company to work under the broad spectrum of flexibility. It gives us an opportunity to give advice on implementing sustainable work alternative programs and share best practices. Like any other business lever, flexibility needs to be adjusted and tweaked along the way to address changing business needs. -Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

  • Chandra Hosek

    Great insights here. This decision brands all telecommuters with a Scarlet Letter "B" for bad performers. It's the wrong approach to addressing what is essentially a performance problem, throwing the baby out with the bath water according to The American CEO: http://wp.me/p2THw4-lU

  • Jackie Acho

    Thank you for writing this; it's just what I was saying to colleague yesterday.  Absolutely, let's have this debate out in the open, including all of the thoughtful people around the virtual water cooler!  I'd like to offer some additional ideas as to why what you write is so important. 

    Marissa Mayer's decision is discouraging, not because she's a woman/it hurts women/it hurts people who want to work flexibly, but because we
    inherently recognize it as management rather than leadership. It's not just an
    issue about working flexibly, but related to how innovation will evolve at
    Yahoo (or not). Yes, of course, collaborations build new ideas, but
    physical proximity does not automatically build the trust and engagement which
    lead to collaborations that move people through the fear of change to innovate.
    For that, employees need a compelling vision, a way to grow, and a way to be
    whole (including working flexibly with clear goals). These things build what I
    call a "currency of empathy" which allows true collaboration in
    person, over the phone, over skype, over email, etc.

    Place is a red herring, especially in this age of social media and free flowing ideas.  Her focus on it is a red flag for this company. I explain here: http://currencyofempathy.wordp....
    I'd love to know what you think and appreciate you using your platform to focus this debate productively. 

  • Rosalind Joffe

    I have worked 'remotely' for 20 years after leaving my last job where my chronic illness just kept getting in the way.I was also a mom of 2 but that's not what made me leave my job.  I couldn't handle the early 7:30 start time or the commute.  I never wanted to work at home or to be self employed but it was the only option I could find. This issue is not just about mothers -- it's about flexibility. As a coach of people with chronic health challenges who want to keep working, in whatever way they can, I've found that most of my clients would prefer not to work at home -- but it's the only way that they can continue to be productive. The challenge for any organization is to give their employees the choice to work in the way that they can perform the best -- and to set expectations around this. If an organization judges productivity based on outcomes, rather than time at 'work', then the key question would logicallybe , what does the employee need to be productive? We know that some employees do better 'AT work' - in a social/productive environment and others don't -- for cognitive, physical or emotional reasons.  Some like to leave their home to work. Others don't want or can't handle the commute-- or prefer the quiet.   50% of the population lives with chronic illness of some type -- and how many more have personal challenges that make flexible work critical?  This is also about recognizing differences in employees' work style and needs - that's why they're hired in the first place, isn't it?   It doesn't make sense to see this as a a benefit or a right.It's in any organization's best interest to create the right environment for each employee where it is possible. I can understand  Mayer's decision - she's new, wants to turn things around as quickly as possible and she's creating buzz.  Time will tell if this decision produces the business results she says she's looking for.

  • 1nd3p3nd3nt

    if i worked at yahoo, and i used to work from home, i'd be really upset if i'm not collaborating in a meaningful way with my fellow employees every day

    good luck keeping that monkey off people's backs : (  

  • StevoTivo

    Instead of saying you can present stacks and stacks of research showing a strong correlation between telework and productivity, cost savings, etc.. Why don't you actually present one?  And, later you say you need to invest the time, people, or money up front to create the extra layer of systems and measures required to coordinate and monitor teleworkers.  So, is it cost saving or do you have to put a bunch of money in it to work?  Maybe Yahoo doesn't have the money at this time to "make it work."  This is an awful article that picks and chooses "points" just to benefit it's argument.  Doesn't look at the whole picture at all.

  • 1nd3p3nd3nt

    seriously?
    they could give you specific examples, or you could use logic?  how long does it take to commute to work?  if you can't sleep at 3am because you're neurotic, guess what, you could do some work.  it should be obvious without having to quote you a study

    do you not know what an investment is?  do you understand why people take out loans?  

    if you set up system in your company to allow people to work from home, set up a system to quantify their work.  it can be a software program on their computer.  it'll cost some resources upfront to create the software program, but guess what, you won't have to worry about monitoring your employees or wasting lots of the company's money and time dealing with any of it.

    you don't think they have the money at this time to 'make it work'  ...but, yahoo is a tech company, they can do the software themselves !

  • Ezra Chasser

    It's an interesting analysis, but I couldn't disagree more with your analysis of working from home.
    The tech industry today thrives on spontaneous collaboration. It's the reason (as you mention) that Google, Apple, and LinkedIn build enormous campuses. Some of the best ideas aren't born in the board room, they're born in the cafeteria, the courtyard, or the bathroom from 2 people who don't normally work together casually discussing half-baked ideas that they've each been working on developing. This kind of organic collaboration isn't possible when people are sitting in a home by themselves and it may very well be the reason that Yahoo is falling behind its competitors in terms of innovation and production.
    - Ezra, @sorethumbnyc

  • 1nd3p3nd3nt

    google's campus has transformed the workplace.  
    it is not your normal company office space. 

    you think it'd be cheaper to create a google office environment in real world construction and services for employees, or to build a software program that could quantify someone's work from home?  

    there are many differences between google and yahoo.  just like there are many differences between cisco and yahoo.  but work at home flexibility doesn't seem to be the key variable in determining innovation.  

  • Victor Castro

    Well, "wrong" for employees today might mean growth and prosperity at Yahoo later. This move could prevent same employees from being home unemployed if the state of current affairs take Yahoo down.

    The CEO of this company was brought on board to turn around an enterprise that was (is?) in trouble. Among the many decisions that she made was to change a company policy that she considers is not working out for whatever reason.

    Telecommuting is a perk, a benefit and as such optional and The CEO at Yahoo has every right to allow it as she sees fit.

    Why don't all people calm down, await the results and then with the magic of hindsight we all say I told you so.

    Ultimately, all the responsibility for turning Yahoo around is bore by Mrs. Marissa Mayer, CEO.

  • Brandon Matthews

    "Telecommuting is a perk, a benefit and as such optional and The CEO at Yahoo has every right to allow it as she sees fit."

    Wow, an honest-to-goodness time traveler! Tell me more about the 1950s!

  • Tinu

    Enjoyed the article. Re: Google, did they allow telecommuting and then take it away? If not, that's why the same outrage isnt directed at Google. There's a difference between never allowing it, and reversing it.

  • Kristen Fife

    I think something that people are overlooking in the "pro WFH" camp is the definition of "productivity". Working more minutes isn't the only barometer of "productivity." Technology companies thrive on "brainstorming" and "direct collaboration", as evidenced by companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. "Cost savings" in electricity and real estate costs are not necessarily indices that translate in a 1:1 comparison with innovation. If working for a company that thrives in this kind of an environment is less important than the opportunity to work remotely, then obviously the shift in corporate culture isn't compatible. Employees are better off finding a business/organization that better suits their personal/professional needs.

  • Someone

    Brainstorming stale ideas makes no sense. 

    You need original unique perspectives. You need people going out and meeting customers and consumers and non-customers and everyone else. You need people reading things related to your business and things unrelated. 

    Once they do that, they can come back to work with an original idea or two or a million. Without those original ideas, your value in brainstorming is worthless for companies whose survival depends on innovation. There are steps after brainstorming too, you know! 

    This is why Marissa's move is a thoughtless and wrong. 

    She needs the 8 pound brains, not their 200 pound bodies, and definitely not their 6,000 pound cars driving in from all around the Bay area. 

    Instead what she will get now are people unenthusiastic about work, distracted about something else nagging them, but showing up to work on time. 

    Where's her root cause analysis. She tried offering free food. That did not bring the people to work. That must point to something else deeply wrong within Yahoo if she could not get anyone new to show up to work. 

  • Ann Marie

    My impression of Yahoo just went up about 200%.  Remote workers have been milking companies for years.  I know of one lady who kept a small baby at home while she was working with no baby sitter.  VERY DANGEROUS for the kid.  When she had meetings everyone could hear the baby cry. The company then had to have every remote worker sign a form agreeing to have child supervision during the work day.  Anyone with a brain cell wouldn't have to be told to do this.

  • pete

    If you don't manage people at home, then sure this will happen.  But there are plenty of people who take their careers seriously enough to make a place for work at home and not allow themselves to be distracted.  

  • Kaylie Astin

    I didn't think of it this way before, but this article makes a great point--just as Mayer's two-week leave sparked conversations about parental leave and work/life issues, her decision to scrap remote work will cause people to talk again, and it may even lead people to realize that the business case for remote work is actually quite persuasive.

  • michaelleiter

    Your second point re working through the process of flexibility is very on point. In an environment of intense communication technology, companies can create ways to prompt encounters beyond physical proximity. Wouldn't that further the innovation they're after? 🌐