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.
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