Saturday, March 2, 2013

Yahoo?: Marissa Mayer’s remote control

EIGHT MONTHS after taking the reins as the CEO at Yahoo Inc., and five months after giving birth to a son, Marissa Mayer has thrown down a sharp marker, a dividing line meant to delineator Yahoo Before Mayer and Yahoo After Mayer. For Yahoo employees who span that period, the implications for the way they do their jobs, where and how, couldn’t be more concerning.

As the American world of work already knows, Mayer directed that Yahoo employees now working remotely, outside the office, must now come to work on company campuses, or quit. The news was leaked to the media on Feb. 22; Kara Swisher featured it prominently at AllThingsD.

The Mayer memo, released by Yahoo HR chief Jackie Reses, reads in part:

“Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. ... I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. ... Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

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Mayer and fellow corporate titan Sheryl Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, have taken point in workplace culture as two business leaders bucking the work-from-home trend. At The Huffington Post, Bianca Bosker interviewed five women in the technology field to sample their reactions to Mayer’s move.

“[W]omen in tech are not inclined to wholly dismiss the duo's advice if their own situations are not exactly the same, or if certain opinions expressed by Sandberg and Mayer clash with their own. Although they said they don't agree with Mayer's working-from-home ban, they acknowledged it is likely more of a business decision made to save an ailing company than it is a war on working mothers.”

But one would hope these women tech leaders would know better than to even frame the debate this way. It’s frankly silly to even propose a “war on working mothers” as a deliberative Mayer objective, as anything with even the slightest possibility of being true. This has never been more or less than a business decision for Mayer.

The question is, is it the right business decision? Is it one that takes into account not only the CEO’s strategic vision for the company, but also the lives and challenges of the thousands of people required to make that vision real?

The fact that these women in tech don’t agree with Mayer’s decision would seem to be an answer in itself.

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AND ANYWAY, for all the rhetorical convenience of breaking things down along gender lines, this is bigger than just what it may mean for working mothers. Fathers work from home, too, however infrequently compared to mothers. More likely to be disrupted is the delicate work-life balance of those families with two incomes, one of them earned by the WFH partner.

When that father or mother working from home for Yahoo is forced to drive into work, who takes care of the kid(s)? Can the  spouse negotiate to work from home instead? Maybe, maybe not. Mayer’s edict is likely to mean familial upheaval for many.

What about the outlier issues? This is bigger than the impact of one corporate decision of a corporation’s employees. Yeah, there are probably new company infrastructure costs to be dealt with— actually building or opening office space where none had been before, to accommodate employees being on-site instead of working from home.

But Mayer’s directive also means extra man-woman hours behind the wheel, additional costs for gas and car maintenance, and the higher levels of counter-productive personal stress that, in the case of Yahoo employees in Sunnyvale and Santa Monica, can be expected the moment they join the five-days-a-week, bumper-to-bumper parade of traffic that is a stone-cold fact of life in Silicon Valley and southern California.

Ironically enough: because of those factors, Mayer’s decision, at least in the short term and maybe beyond, will almost certainly undercut the very productivity it was intended to enhance.

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In the days since the deal went down, the blogosphere has been more topically ablaze than usual. Some writers showed that there’s Machiavellian thinking afoot, a line of reasoning that suggests Mayer may have done this as a way to achieve the cost-saving end results of layoffs without having to go through the pain and residual expense of layoffs.

Budalia, at HuffPost: “What bothers me most is the way Yahoo has handled this whole affair. These people are tech and internet savvy. They had to know this was going to blow up in their faces. They can't possibly be this clumsy... except on purpose. If so, why?”

Josh opined at VentureBeat: “The simple fact is that Mayer is hoping to layoff a ton of her workforce without severance pay entering the discussion. This has far less to do with productivity and more to do with micro-optimizing their P&L.”

LionelHutz1 atVentureBeat: “Just hoping people quit rather than come into an office is a horrible example of leadership. It is the opposite of leadership. It is cowardice.”

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OTHER REACTIONS ranged from anger to confusion. Thomasina1, HuffPost: “The only reason that any one pays any attention to Marissa is because she made a very mean, ill-fated move. She is a Hypocrite, that does not know how to set a good example for her company, and she has alienated may Yahoo users with her do as I say, not as I do ethos. I quit the Yahoo web page because of her callous disregard for her new employees. I will avoid all Yahoo associated products until she is gone.”

Drumz, HuffPost: “Mayer and [Sheryl] Sandberg are no different than the people they aspire to be, bullies in the workforce just like the men before them.”

Aliceinanthem, at The Huffington Post: “Not only was it bad PR but it shows she doesn't know how to make good usage of technology. I WFH full time and it has nothing to do with having children, etc. My co-workers are in India, Malaysia, Prague, and Bonn. None of which come close to my time zone. My situation is becoming more common as we all move to a global society. So the only thing that Marissa proved was she just doesn't get it, and apparently she doesn't know about webex.”

Richard Branson, Virgin founder and chairman, on Twitter: “Perplexed by Yahoo! stopping remote working. Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel.”

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Patrick Seitz at quotes John Challenger, CEO of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, as thinking Mayer’s move is the first broadside in a battle against the company’s previous culture — and its practitioners.

By purging the payroll of the dinosaurs, Challenger says, Mayer is sending “a signal that it's a different place now and there's a new sheriff in town.”

“It's hard to change [a corporate] culture,” Challenger said. But if that’s true, then where’s the wisdom of trying to change an underpinning component of that culture in one fell swoop?

While the desire to get rid of slackers makes sense, it makes little sense to eliminate a sensitive forward-thinking company policy because of a few who abuse the policy.

And how many abusers are we talking about? What percentage of the work force What’s the signal being sent to Yahoo’s top performers — many of whom may be working from home themselves? Why paint them by association with the same brush used on those who are underperforming? Hardly a morale builder for Yahoo’s best and brightest.

This is throwing out the baby, the bathwater and the wing of the building where the bathtub’s located.

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IN RECENT years, and more recently under Mayer’s leadership, Yahoo has been about reinforcing its bona fides as a search engine and online content resource with the ubiquity the times demand, increasing access to Yahoo platforms from the desktop, from the laptop, the tablet and the smartphone.

Covering the bases aggressively has borne fruit; Danny Goodwin at Search Engine Watch reported in January that “Yahoo, which has seen its search market share eroding since September of 2011, actually gained a little ground in December, rising from 12.1 percent in November to 12.2 percent in December.”

The company has advanced the idea, if not the branding, of Yahoo Everywhere — a 21st-century information resource you can make use of from anywhere in the world. Why in the world shouldn’t Yahoo employees be the beneficiaries of that, too?

“Requiring everyone to be in fixed places at fixed times can promote rigidity and still not guarantee that teams work well together or produce high levels of innovation,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, told Wired.

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For the deeper reasons to all this, all we have to go on is the content of the memo that Reses distributed this week. The explanations for the change are couched in the gauziest group-hug context: The “need to be one Yahoo,” to gain the “interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices” — where the “energy and buzz” are.

We can't tell from the memo, but you want to believe that Mayer is smart enough to make such a seismic company-cultural decision using hard numbers, solid metrics that prove the diminished production from WFH employees she asserts — not because she walked through the Sunnyvale offices one Friday at 3:30 and didn’t find enough cubicle drones alternating between writing code and playing foosball for her satisfaction.

If nothing else, the policy potentially creates optical problems for Mayer. It boxes her into a policy whose apparent comprehensiveness almost screams for exceptions to be made at some point — and what happens then? If any exceptions to the blanket policy are made, Mayer will be seen as playing favorites ... or worse, she’ll be seen as indecisive, or a flip-flopper on her own company mandates.

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SOME HAVE come to Mayer’s defense. Aggressively. In VentureBeat, Penelope Trunk, an online entrepreneur, thunders:

“Who do you know who has given up more of their life for work than Marissa Mayer? I can’t think of one other person, actually. She was renowned as one of the hardest workers at Google, where hundred-hour weeks are de rigueur. And she is renowned for being the only CEO in US history to deliver a baby while running a Fortune 500 company. Marissa Mayer can tell anyone that they are not putting in enough hours. She’s giving up everything for work; she has a right to demand that her coworkers do the same.”

If only that were true. Either before or shortly after she gave birth to son Macallister in late September, Mayer had a nursery attached to her office suite — a child-rearing option that the majority of working mothers with or without executive suites would love to have. Clearly, Mayer’s not “giving up” anything.

Ironically, Trunk undercuts the force of her own argument with the tagline identifying who she is: She is the founder of Brazen Careerist and two other startup companies. “Her career advice runs in 200 newspapers. She lives on a farm in Wisconsin and homeschools her sons.”* Trunk’s not willing to give up anything, either.

If only the employees at Yahoo could count on that option.

Image credits: Mayer: marcusnelson via photopin via Wired. Yahoo logo: © 2013 Yahoo. Silicon Valley traffic hell: via Tweet by Richard Branson. * Italics are mine.

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