Last week the 37 year old CEO of Yahoo made big news that has been buzzing all over the Internet ever since. Marissa Mayer wrote a memo to Yahoo employees basically saying their “work at home” policies were ending. This is a massive change in an organization that, I guess, Mayer feels needs massive change. It is interesting that a lot of the discussion seems to be centered on Mayer herself rather than the policy. There was great hope that this CEO who was hired while pregnant would be able to move the rights of workers, especially women workers to new levels. Instead she had her baby, declared how easy it was, built and paid for a nursery next to her office, took only two weeks leave when having the baby and now demands everyone work in the office. Wow, she is definitely sending a message of some sort.
This New York Times piece outlines the issues. Yahoo clearly is a company that needs change. The question is where and when to push for that change. The world is definitely evolving and telecommuting, or whatever you want to call work outside the traditional office, is a part of the new culture. Given the technological advances and the huge costs of building office space, many companies are opting for the productivity that comes with allowing a flexible work environment. Yahoo and others point out that innovation is tougher to do alone and away from other colleagues. They point out that cafeteria and hallway discussions are very important. All are good points that require consideration.
The interesting part of this discussion is the fact that the customer is hardly a part of the conversation. Where is the debate about how much time should be spent with the customer either live or via phone from wherever? Where is the external focus? There is lots of talk about free food, new smartphones and other nice things that make workers want to stay in the office but where is the motivation to help customers solve their problems? This is a huge issue for those in pharmaceutical marketing groups. Where do they best add value, in the office or with the customer? This is a topic worth considerable reflection.
The answer to a lot of these issues requires that we go a little deeper. What is the motivation that required Yahoo to make the change? Is it an issue of trust? Is it about control? Is it about needing to prove who the boss was? Or was it really a way to help spur teamwork and innovation? Is it really about building a new culture, or bunker mentality, where everyone is in the fight together? The concern to me, with such a drastic change would be signaling just how bad things might be at Yahoo. On the other hand the CEO might want to signal to Wall Street that she is willing to make bold moves to move the organization forward.
It would seem that there might be room for greater flexibility. Take a look at this piece also in the NYT and see how others are dealing with the same issue. I love the idea of some middle ground that requires a certain amount of office time each week but still allows the employee to work where they are most productive.
Perhaps the biggest issue really has to do with workforce diversity and having the highest level of talent possible. Every time a rule is put in place, there is a reaction to that action. Some will accept and some will leave. The concern is that those who are most talented have the ability to leave and those with less talent are forced to comply. Looking at it from another angle, that by forcing someone to work in an office you will only have people who want to work in an office in your company and these may not be the best possible people available. Getting the best workers for the best jobs in many ways requires having fewer not more rules. It will be interesting to see how things play out at Yahoo and perhaps there will be lessons learned for all the rest of us.