When word got out that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer abolished working from home, the reaction was intense and, with relatively few exceptions, strongly negative. I’m hesitant to lob criticisms at Mayer, though, in part because I can’t claim to know more about her company or the tech sector than she.
I want, instead, to pose some questions. Mayer was clear in her reasons for ending telecommuting-mainly that physical proximity all day, every day, creates a cauldron of creativity and innovation. But there are other questions that would be interesting to answer.
First, how quickly does the marginal benefit of each additional hour at the workplace decline? Assuming a declining marginal benefit, did Yahoo consider a partial end to telecommuting-maybe requiring three days a week in the office? (Or, for more remote employees, 10 or 12 working days a month?) Even two days off would help workers with parents or young children or others who need flexibility, older workers, perhaps?
Second, how will Yahoo evaluate this new policy? What processes and outcomes will be assessed? Will it measure the things that critics claim will suffer, such as recruitment, retention, and worker productivity in their daily tasks? See, for example, the Forbes.com article quoting Brad Harrington, Executive Director of Boston College’s Center on Family and Work.
Third, will the benefit calculation be based on a comparison with the workplace as it was, or with some other alternatives that also could have facilitated collaboration? Mayer may be familiar with one simple but effective tool used at my workplace-Google Docs.
Fourth, speaking of the cost-benefit analysis, how thoroughly has Yahoo considered the costs? Put another way, the memo read, in part, “For the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.” Did Yahoo consider an alternate version of that, such as, “For the rest of us who occasionally take our parents to chemotherapy or accompany them when they are going to the doctor to learn whether they are terminal or not, please use your best judgment…”?
I’m sure Yahoo would protest and say it didn’t mean to impugn time off for those kinds of issues. Even so their emblem of a personal obligation was trivial, and it effectively obliterated reality. Yahoo can demand anything it wants, but it portrayed the sacrifice it is asking for in what seems like a willfully blithe manner.
Finally, if some employees abused Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, would it make more sense to change how the policy was implemented, rather than view it as a failed policy?
These questions are not only fair, but in Yahoo’s best interests. What, then, are the chances of an accurate and actionable self-assessment? Confidence is not inspired by the fact that, to the extent this is about work ethic—and at least one source said it is—the company is resorting to a metric born in a bygone era: face time. That doesn’t exactly suggest a keen interest in careful organizational self-assessment. On the other hand, the spotlight in which Yahoo operates not only invites criticism but also a lot of free advice. Indeed, the two are often one and the same. One hopes Yahoo utilizes the insights and opinions others offer up.
I admit, I hope Yahoo changes its mind about telecommuting. I also hope Yahoo succeeds financially. Fortunately, good evidence suggests these two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.
Chris Morett, PhD, MPP
Office of Scheduling and Space Management, Rutgers University
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College