It isn’t about working from home, it’s about fixing Yahoo

Last week, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, issued a memo to all Yahoo employees effectively phasing out working from home (telecommuting).

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. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, 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. 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. — Leaked internal Yahoo memo published on AllThingsD

#####It’s Not For Everyone#####

This decision has taken a lot of heat over the last few days, with many proponents of telecommuting up in arms that employees who work from home are being made to go into the office. For example, Dan Benjamin devoted a good proportion of the time on the latest episode of Quit! on 5by5 to lament the decision, along with David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals (a company that has most of it’s staff telecommute). The biggest complaint was that how working from home increases productivity.

Richard Branson even chimed and tweeted:

Perplexed by Yahoo! stopping remote working. Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel — @richardbranson

I wholeheartedly agree with people like Dan and David that working from home allows people to become more productive but for some reason everyone is jumping to the defence of telecommuters without considering, even for a moment, how telecommuting could be counter-productive for Yahoo. It isn’t for everyone and some people find working from home too distracting or counterproductive. It can be very difficult to separate the work/home life balance since you’re working at home. In an office, you know for the time you’re there, you’re working. At home it can be tricky.

Trying to get your eight hours of work done where you also spend the other 16 hours is difficult, at best, and often you can get caught up in tasks like housework. You know how it is, you go downstairs to make a coffee, decide to put some dishes in the dishwasher and then do some laundry – it’ll only take a few minutes. Before you know it, two hours of time that should’ve been spent working have gone. I work from home all the time so I speak from experience.

#####Yahoo Needs to Change#####

What a lot of people seem to forget is that Yahoo is in bad shape – it has been for too long. The company went from one of the pinnacles of the web to a shadow of its former self. Marissa was brought on to turn the company around which unfortunately means drastic times calls for drastic measures. Why? There’s likely hundreds, if not thousands of different and contributing reasons. When you’re presented with a problem with far too many variables, what do you do? You simplify by removing as many variables as possible.

Yahoo has already been allowing telecommuting and look at how it was doing when Marissa joined. Now, before you start shouting CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION, hear me out. I don’t think telecommuting is a huge factor for Yahoo’s troubles but trying reduce as many factors as possible is key to fixing them.

John Gruber made a particularly good point about this, in response to Richard Branson’s tweet:

Yahoo needs a kick in the ass. Mayer is not merely trying to keep Yahoo limping along; she’s trying to lead Yahoo to kick some ass. Same old, same old isn’t going to get them there. — Daring Fireball

#####A Decision Based on Numbers#####

Business Insider reports that a source stated that Marissa requested to see the VPN traffic logs for telecommuters:

After spending months frustrated at how empty Yahoo parking lots were, Mayer consulted Yahoo’s VPN logs to see if remote employees were checking in enough.

Mayer discovered they were not — and her decision was made. — Business Insider

Marissa isn’t out to win any popularity contests, nor is she there to make friends and be loved, she’s there to fix Yahoo and I don’t doubt that we’ll see more unpopular decisions in the upcoming future. She didn’t decide to end telecommuting simply because she didn’t like it – if she was truly against it on a personal level but it was the key to Yahoo’s success, you bet she’d keep it around – she’s not stupid.

No, the numbers are actually showing the opposite (if the source is to be believed). If that’s the case then to stop telecommuting whilst Yahoo tries to get into better shape is a good option. Once Yahoo is doing better, she could then manage a more controlled rollout of telecommuting again.

#####Everyone is Culpable#####

One argument I’ve heard against Marissa’s decision is that “if telecommuters aren’t being productive then their managers are at fault”.

Bullshit.

If some (and I mean a small, but significant enough number) employees are avoiding work and intentionally hiding behind telecommuting as a way to avoid doing a full day’s work, forcing them to work at the office will reveal their poor work ethic. (That would actually make a great origin story for Dilbert’s Wally an employee who is only in the office simply because he was no longer allowed to work from home).

Like I said before, working from home isn’t for everyone so if an employee felt that they weren’t being as productive as they could be, then heading to the office might give them the boost they need1.

Yes, the managers are also to blame and I suspect they’ve all been given a grilling (especially those who also work from home), maybe even laid off. But that shouldn’t absolve the telecommuter of all responsibility.

If those VPN logs (which, let’s face it, we’re not going to see) are showing a significant number of people systematically abusing their ability to telecommute then it ruins it for others. If you know someone at Yahoo who works (well, worked) from home who would often take their kids to the park on Friday afternoon when they should really have been working, or decided to head out to watch a movie because the only good time was at 3pm (but they totally finished their work for the day and can start the other work on Monday so it’s fine) – you know who to blame.

That small number of telecommuters, who are ruining it for the others, are doing the bare minimum to get by – but the bare minimum isn’t enough to turn Yahoo around.

#####Past Experience#####

Do you know which company avoids telecommuting? Google.

In a recent interview, Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, stated:

It’s somewhat counterintuitive. People think, ‘Well, because you’re at Google you can work from anywhere.’ Yes, you can work from anywhere, but many just commute to offices . . . Working from the office is really important. — Sydney Morning Herald

And how is Google doing? Really well.

Where did Marissa work at before she joined Yahoo? Oh yeah, that’s right – Google. It’s no surprise that she’s trying to adopt some of the work practices that she’s familiar with.

Marissa is pruning back the company to focus on core areas as much, and aggressively, as possible. Something that was overlooked in the wake of the telecommuting story was that Yahoo announced the closure of 7 products:

Yahoo will be ending Yahoo app for BlackBerry devices, Yahoo App Search, Yahoo Clues, Yahoo Message Boards, Yahoo Updates API, Yahoo Clues and Yahoo Avatars. — Nasdaq

I seem to remember someone else becoming the CEO of a troubled company and canning a wide range of product lines…

In March 1998, to concentrate Apple’s efforts on returning to profitability, Jobs terminated a number of projects, such as Newton, Cyberdog, and OpenDoc. — Wikipedia

I’m not comparing Marissa Mayer to Steve Jobs as a whole, but she knows that her job is to make drastic changes. And to take what Gruber has already pointed out and add to it, Yahoo – and its employees – both need a kick in the ass.

  1. I’d argue that if that were the case, why did they not look to do this before? If it was a question of being too far away from a Yahoo office then this latest telecommuting policy doesn’t make any difference – that’s still a problem. In that case, either they might have to look at moving, whether this is home or job.