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Yahoo Bans Telework

Marissa Meyer, the new CEO of Yahoo, wants her company’s employees to come into the office from now on:

SAN FRANCISCO — Corporate America’s most famous working mother has banned her employees from working at home. Now the backlash is threatening to overshadow the progress she has made turning around Yahoo Inc.

Marissa Mayer, one of only a handful of women leading Fortune 500 companies, has become the talk of Twitter and Silicon Valley for her controversial move to end telecommuting at the struggling Internet pioneer.

From the start, Mayer, who at 37 is one of Silicon Valley’s most notorious workaholics, was not the role model that some working moms were hoping for. The former Google Inc. executive stirred up controversy by taking the demanding top job at Yahoo when she was five months pregnant and then taking only two weeks of maternity leave. Mayer built a nursery next to her office at her own expense to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.

Now working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements. Many view telecommuting as the only way time-crunched women can care for young children and advance their careers without the pay, privilege or perks that come with being the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.

“When a working mother is standing behind this, you know we are a long way from a culture that will honor the thankless sacrifices that women too often make,” read one email sent to technology blogger Kara Swisher of AllThingsD, who first wrote about the ban.

Hundreds of staffers — including those who work from home one or two days a week — will have to decide if they want to start showing up every day at the office or be out of a job, according to a memo leaked to Swisher.

“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,” Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s human resources chief, wrote in the memo sent out Friday. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

After speaking with a Yahoo executive, Business Insider cited a number of factors as influencing the decision:

  • Yahoo has a huge number of people of who work remotely – people who just never come in.
  • Many of these people “weren’t productive,” says this source.
  • “A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.”
  • These people aren’t just Yahoo customer support reps. They’re in all divisions, from marketing to engineering.
  • Mayer is happy to give Yahoo employees standard Silicon Valley benefits like free food and free smartphones. But our source says the kinds of work-from-home arrangements popular at Yahoo were not common to other Valley companies like Google or Facebook. “This is a collaborative businesses.”
  • Mayer saw another side-benefit to making this move. She knows that some remote workers won’t want to start coming into the office and so they will quit. That helps Yahoo, which needs to cut costs. It’s a layoff that’s not a layoff.
  • Bigger picture: This is about Mayer ”carefully getting to problems created by Yahoo’s huge, bloated infrastructure.” The company got fat and lazy over the past 15 years, and this is Mayer getting it into fighting shape.

Walter Russell Mead makes the point that Mayer’s decision isn’t based simply on some perceived problem with telecommuting, rather it’s part of an overall restructuring of a company that has fallen badly behind its competitors. At the same time, though, it seems clear that a company in an industry that depends very much on collaboration between co-workers loses something when the workers aren’t around each other to, well, collaborate. This would seem to be most true on the creative side of the business. It’s also worth noting that Mayer came to Yahoo after many years at Google where, for the most part, there is no telecommuting at all and the company’s creative process is driven by a work force that works closely together. The same is largely true at Facebook. So, yes, I’m sure some Yahoo teleworkers will complain about the new work rules that Mayer is imposing, but they seem to be in the long term interests of a company that wasn’t in the best of shape when she took over the helm.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Maxwell James says:

    I think Mead is right that this is mostly about Mayer trying to figure out how to turn things around at Yahoo. And as many others have suggested, it’s probably also a shadow layoff. There’s obviously mounting evidence that telecommuting can work for many companies, but that doesn’t mean it works for every company in every circumstance.

    At the same time, it’s a little silly to suggest that creativity in a software company can only be harnessed if everyone is all in the same room together. There are successful IT firms that are almost entirely based on virtual offices – i.e., 37Signals. What works for Google and Facebook does not necessarily work for the entire industry.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. Ben says:

    This is 100% a hidden layoff. My former employer did the same thing. They know, without a doubt, that a large percentage of the employees who had been working from home would simply quit if telecommuting was taken away. It allowed them to shed several hundred workers without having to admit to a layoff.

    Unfortunately, they lost a lot of talented and brilliant engineers in that layoff, so it certainly isn’t a well-targeted layoff. A lot of people seem to assume that telecommuters, by definition, are lazy and unproductive, but that’s simply not true, at least in engineering.

    I didn’t quit right away; I went along with going into the office each day. But I did start looking, and left a few months later.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  3. Scott says:

    Teleworking is one of those ideas that works in specific instances but not in others. If the task is well defined, solitary, with a specific deliverable it can work great. In those cases, working at home can be very productive because you are not interrupted by the office environment.

    On the other hand, where meeting and collaboration are a premium, working at home is not very productive.

    Without specifics, I can’t comment on Yahoo but , in general, blanket policies are not very effective.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. Ben says:

    @Scott:

    I wouldn’t even say that that is true anymore. The amount of collaboration you can do via telecommuting is pretty impressive nowadays. Between audio/video conferencing, shared desktops and whiteboards, and instant messaging, I collaborate with and bounce things off my teammates all day long while working from home.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    The first two grafs in that loopy L.A. Times piece are priceless. No agenda there, eh? Geez.

    In any event, Meyer simply is cleaning out the dead scrub brush at a company that years ago became a parody of itself. Kudos to her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  6. Andre Kenji says:

    Here in Brazil people complains that during the World Cup EVERYONE becomes a Soccer Coach, that can chooses the best players and tatics for the National team. In the United States, EVERYONE is a HR Specialist that can say what Yahoo should or should not do regarding telecommuting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  7. Davebo says:

    Many of these people “weren’t productive,” says this source.

    “A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.”

    In other words, management at Yahoo is obviously feckless if they can’t recognize unproductive employees or keep up with who their employees are.

    Having everyone come into the office won’t change those metrics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. greg says:

    I wouldn’t even say that that is true anymore. The amount of collaboration you can do via telecommuting is pretty impressive nowadays. Between audio/video conferencing, shared desktops and whiteboards, and instant messaging, I collaborate with and bounce things off my teammates all day long while working from home.

    I agree.
    Between skype, gotomeeting, global connected VOIP, and centralized in house systems, we stay in constant contact.
    It also allows us to run a global office with virtually no downtime to our team or customers. Besides, if I had to commute, the 11 hour drive would be a killer ;)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. Franklin says:

    The first thought I had was that this was completely backwards. Fewer people really need to be in an office anymore. We save tons of time, money, and gas by not commuting. And given that most of us are doing plenty of work outside the 9-5 timeframe, who gives a crap about being at a certain place at a certain time? If you’re productive, you’re productive. If you’re not, you should be fired. If a company can’t figure out who is who by the work they do, rather than when they see them, then the company will be out of business soon. I’ve been collaborating constantly with people in Australia and Europe for years and it’s been working out fine. That said, we’re a small self-motivated company; I could see it possibly not working as well for a large bloated company, which Yahoo is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. matt bernius says:

    A commentator on NPR brought up a good point about this decision: Marissa Mayer cut her teeth at Google, during the time that it basically began to do everything possible to keep it’s employees on campus (free meals, massage, concierge dry cleaning, etc). To some degree this move seems to harken back to that sort of mindset.

    Give it a few months and I expect lots of stories will come out about all the new perks Yahoo is offering its office workers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Barry says:

    @Andre Kenji: “Here in Brazil people complains that during the World Cup EVERYONE becomes a Soccer Coach, that can chooses the best players and tatics for the National team. In the United States, EVERYONE is a HR Specialist that can say what Yahoo should or should not do regarding telecommuting.”

    I understand your point, that we’re speculating. Should I say goodbye to everybody on the internet for you, or will you send farewell notes yourself? :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    @Barry:

    I understand your point, that we’re speculating. Should I say goodbye to everybody on the internet for you, or will you send farewell notes yourself? :)

    My face to face relations are much different than my virtual relations. I help a close friend that´s a coworker with their English Lessons, we prepared lunch together, I lent her money and I never requested it back, etc.

    People that I only know by pseudonyms does not have the same privileges.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0