Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, is looking to improve her company’s performance. In a memo from the company’s human resources department to all employees, Mayer made her intentions clear. In order to build a more cohesive company of employees, all work from home arrangements are canceled.
The confidential memo was made public by Kara Swisher at AllThingsD. The letter called for all employees who normally work outside of Yahoo premises to show up at the office. Even those who might need to wait at home for the cable guy on rare occasions were suggested to reconsider their absence from the office.
This seems to be a step backwards. We are in an employment recession, in which workers are continually told to just be thankful they have their jobs and to accept any abuse their employers present by uttering, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
Despite this economic condition where the balance of power is weighted heavily towards employers, companies have been trending towards offering more flexible working arrangements. The arguments in favor of flex-time and working from home are reasonably strong:
- Flexibility is a benefit that employees want, and when employers provide it, boosts morale. Better morale, in turn, inspires workers to enjoy their jobs, and happier employees make better employees.
- Workers often report fewer distractions and more time spent working when they are in an environment outside of the office. That leads to higher productivity, and higher productivity is good for the company.
Why does the CEO of Yahoo want to move backwards, taking away one of the beneficial features of working for a twenty-first century technology company, where most job functions can be completed well regardless of location? She states her reasons in the memo:
- Working side-by-side spurs communication and collaboration.
- Impromptu discussions and meetings foster better decisions and insights.
- “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
I will argue with the last point, but otherwise, Mayer has identified the benefits of physical presence. There is no denying that something has been amiss with Yahoo. As a company, it is losing its relevance in a tech world dominated by Google, Apple, and Microsoft. It may not be fair to take away benefits that employees appreciate, particularly when many undoubtedly accepted the Yahoo job offer with the expectation that these benefits would continue be available. And there is probably validity to that thought that this is a way to trim down the fat: employees who love Yahoo will stay and put up with the change, while employees who may not have been as dedicated to their job will leave.
I’ve seen this attitude at companies before. Voluntary attrition always backfires. By making conditions worse for employees in an effort to let a portion of the workforce go without explicitly firing people, Yahoo stands to lose its best employees, not its worst. It’s simple: the best employees have more options open to them, despite the high unemployment rate. The best employees have worked hard to increase their personal human capital — their employability, their desirability, their potential value to others. These folks can do better than Yahoo. They can find a job relatively quickly, one offering the benefits no longer available at the waning tech behemoth.
Nevertheless, a company during its growing period needs people who are going to be 100 percent dedicated to the tasks at hand. No one ever became a superstar without sacrificing something from their personal life, and Mayer is looking for a company of superstars. Excellence requires personal sacrifice, and that means less time for family and less time for friends. Mayer seems to be hunting excellence, and anyone not prepared to make those required sacrifices is not welcome to the team. This often unfairly targets moms, who disproportionately take care of home-focused responsibilities, and are looking for that work/life balance so often lauded by human resource departments.
It’s no wonder that people are calling Yahoo’s move a step in the wrong direction for gender equality in the workplace.
Marissa Mayer is familiar with making personal sacrifices. She skipped her own maternity leave to continue to work. Her attitude has done well for her; she is the CEO of Yahoo.
Not every developer at Yahoo has designs for being an executive at a major company. In fact, most of the developers I know aren’t interested in management at all, and they’re quite happy to quietly code from whatever location they happen to be at the moment, meet with each other over the phone and through online video conferencing, and put it more hours than expected because they aren’t wasting time by commuting, wasting energy with small-talk among co-workers already wasting time in the office, and wasting attention through constant distractions. They’re happy to stretch out in their own space rather than being confined to a tiny cubicle.
The CEO of Yahoo wants a leaner company. Without saying so explicitly in the memo, she wants Yahoo to operate like a start-up, where employees put the mission of the company above all else, including their personal lives. She wants to breed work superstars. Judging from the reaction, this is a drastic change from Yahoo’s current corporate culture, and it could be just the thing to shake it up.
My suggestion is for Yahoo to make coming to the office an enjoyable experience. If people like to be there, they won’t think so much about how they miss working from the couch in their living room or being available for family at all hours. Eventually, Yahoo will reverse this possibility. In order to make Yahoo a relevant company again, something like this could be the shake-up the company needs.
There are better ways to make this change, though. Canceling an expected privilege of working for a technology company with a memo from human resources is not going to be well-received, and it will likely have the opposite effect on employee morale. The goal is for employees to make sacrifices for the sake of building a better company, but Yahoo needs to represent something worth sacrificing for first, and that comes from great leadership. It appears that Yahoo is not there yet.
Updated March 6, 2013 and originally published February 26, 2013.