Why does Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, not want her employees to work from home? I think one could rephrase the question, "Why does Marissa Mayer not want her employees to NOT work from home?"
If one believes the press reports, the decision was about more closely managing their performance -- not about fruitful collaboration, which is what the internal memo apparently touted. Apparently the key piece of data was an analysis of time spent on VPN, by people working from home, which indicated that some people were not spending much of their work from home time on the VPN so they might not actually be working. (Disregard the fact that Yahoo, like many companies, makes things like email accessible in ways that don't require one to be on VPN, nor that VPN tends to slow and restrict ones internet access, which encourages one to log in, pull down one's work, log out, and complete the work -- and then log back in to upload the completed tasks.)
Now the question becomes: Why create a PR firestorm instead of directly addressing each suspected performance issue directly via regular management practices? This question implies the answer: To create a storm of discussion and keep Yahoo in the news for a few news cycles. Perhaps, the press exposure was considered more valuable than any ill will this might create in current and future (potential) employees. It also has the advantage of looking like a strong assertive action, which is useful PR as well, regardless of whether remote worker productivity is a significant factor in Yahoo's challenges.
So: It appears to have been a very well played piece of PR. Most companies deal with low performers directly, without creating so much press. But in this case, the press attention appears to have been part of the motivation for the 'how,' in terms of how this piece of performance management was executed.
Case in point, we have the NYT, the Economist, and every tech blog on the planet.... and a whole bunch of other companies coming out with statements about telecommuting, all of which constitute free press for Yahoo (the most they have gotten in years, even more than when Mayer was appointed CEO last year).
Why do people care about Marissa Mayer's no work from home policy? I.e., what is feeding the PR frenzy?
1) It's one of those: "It could happen here" kinds of events. That makes tens of thousands of employees working in flexible workplaces in high tech wonder whether they will be subject to a similar action when/if the going gets tough at their own company.
2) People care about everything at Yahoo (sometimes these days with a morbid curiosity) because it was one of the first giant Internet companies -- and it is still around. It's like wondering what your high school sweetheart is up to 10 years later.
3) High tech firms have been on the cutting edge of work-from-home practices. So to see one of the (former?) poster children for high tech reverse course is fantastic drama.
4) Perhaps related: Among the many business benefits study after study cites related to having employees work at least part time from home, use flexible hours etc, there are also personal factors that make such working arrangements popular. One is the way it allows families to better manage childcare. As a new parent, Marissa worked around this for herself by bringing her child to work each day. So it's good fodder for bloggers who focus on such issues.
5) Finally, it's a big gamble. It now appears this was a performance management action. But by making it a giant public event (sending an email to more than 10000 people is a public event) and not clearly stating up front that it was about performance management may have been something of a PR move. It was a surprising event. Got lots of news coverage. Then was clarified....
But let's leave the masterful PR gambit aside for a moment and talk about whether it's a good idea. To the extent that it appears to be a bold and decisive move, which will positively impact performance and accountability, many people inside and some outside Yahoo seem to like it -- at least in the short term. It's almost like a great scapegoat has been found.
Is it a good long term idea? Perhaps, though as implied above, the reasons stated don't make too much sense, if we believe the leaks in the press about the original memo -- which cite staff positions which don't appear to thrive or rely on close, frequent, in person collaboration as the primary targets of this action -- saying this move will increase collaboration.
Contrary to the leaked memo, which makes no mention of sussing out low performers, many people seem to assume this move is about productivity -- and later clarifications about the data used to make the decision seem to support this assumption. And the positive reactions have all focused on this. This presents itself as a way to make people accountable.
Here's a gotcha: Regardless of whether someone is in the office or WFM or an airport or a coffee shop or the park, if they are not producing, and cannot turn that non-productive behavior around, put them on a performance improvement plan -- and show them the door if need be. There is no need to equate butts in seats with productivity. If their managers cannot figure out whether they are productive, those managers are ripe for performance improvement, themselves. Accountability appears to not be a key part of this discussion. Butts in seats appears to be the shotgun being used to kill a fly on the wall. Maybe it's necessary. But it means one has to repair the holes in the wall down the road. So one might surmise a fly swatter is a better tool. Like measuring work results.
Yahoo is smart. They know they can manage out (or up) low performers. There are far easier ways than this proclamation, that do not engender so much bad publicity. Unless what you want is publicity.
I wanted to take the leaked memo at face value and assume Yahoo was being frank about the reasons for this move. I wanted to agree that this is about collaboration and not individual productivity. So my concerns were:
I have found that "in person" works well for extroverts, and some kinds of work. On the other hand, introverts tend to communicate via IM and email, even when they are sitting 20 feet from one another -- and get more done when not surrounded by extroverts.
At its core, a policy like this ignores the fact that there is diversity in the workforce -- in terms of work styles and personality types.
This may have a parallel in the area of life styles:
What does this say to older workers, those with families, or homes they cannot sell, etc, people that cannot move close to an office -- or cannot commute in to an office every day? Younger workers find it easier to move -- they don't have kids in schools, or long standing strong community ties, or need to live near their aging parents; they are more likely to be renters who can up and move easily, etc. (I'll leave aside a deep analysis that some bloggers and media outlets like the New York Times and the Economist have proffered, which is that it's fine for Marissa, a new mom, to say she wants everyone at the office -- but strange to have a private nursery and nanny for her child but no onsite childcare for anyone else.)
This move may build barriers to an older workforce that is likely to be seasoned and experienced enough to know how to execute really well -- something at the core of all turnarounds.
Finally, for a company that strives to be green, is focused on mobile, etc: requiring commuting, the use of office space, and assuming effective communication can only happen in person seems strange.
It's a bold experiment. It might make a difference. Or it might have been rolled out this way for other reasons, like publicity and making a point -- which makes sense when one considers less disruptive ways to increase collaboration and productivity.
It's an interesting experiment that I wouldn't necessarily want to be subjected to. But I'm an introvert and my most productive hours tend to be 7-10am. And I work in a global environment, where work is not confined to anything like regular office hours (as I learned when a colleague in India called me before dawn on Thanksgiving last year) though I am also in the office every day -- by choice.
As an experiment, it's an experiment that will be inconclusive no matter the result. If Yahoo flourishes, it certainly can't be attributed in a meaningful way to this move. That said, as a long time lover of the purple, I hope the constellation of activities going down, now, works. I was purple back when Yahoo was just a couple of grad students' well maintained list of bookmarks that they shared with the world. I was a fan when I sat in a hot tub at a party at Wanda Webb's house off Skyline Blvd in the late '90s and listened to them talk about how they recently got a lot of investor funding after paying a PR firm to place a photo of them in a hottub in Fortune (Forbes?) magazine, with the caption "Board Meeting." And I was still purple years later when I joined the company to try and help the turnaround.
And I hope the action is seen finally for what it is, an extraordinary action for an outlier situation in which all the negatives are offset by the nature of the times -- like cannibalism is seen as a last ditch effort for survival and not as plan for a regular diet when there are other options.