'Physically Together' Yahoo Looks to Kill Mobile Workforce

By Steve Anderson February 25, 2013

In something of a turnaround from what is becoming progressively the norm, Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer announced that remote workers will be forcibly relocated starting this June. The word came in from several Yahoo employees who supplied copies of the memo from human resources head, Jackie Reses, on the rule in question to the press – and according to the rest of the company, flexibility for Yahoo on this point will be at a minimum.

Yahoo's memo is pretty much a summation of what many believe are the biggest problems related to telecommuting and mobile workforces. The statement describes how "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," and how unexpected wild events like "hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings" have led to some of "the best decisions and insights" that the company could have had.

The memo further declares that the company "need(s) to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

Many have already noted the unusual dichotomy involved in that a technology company seems either unable or unwilling to leverage technology – even its own – to produce the "together" state that Yahoo wants, and some have wondered how this policy will ultimately affect employee morale. The move will reportedly be limited to customer service representatives who made work from home arrangements. But other reports have suggested the move will sweep up programmers, engineers and others who formerly worked from home, even only occasionally – and even if they were hired under the impression that working from home would be an option.

Worse yet, Mayer stated two weeks ago that reviving Yahoo would be all about mobile, calling Yahoo Groups "an ideal place to do group communication."

Of course, if Yahoo is having problems getting productivity out of its mobile workforce, a change in the environment is well worth considering. The Yahoo memo, however, doesn't mention productivity in so many words – aside from the bit about "speed and quality" – and instead seems to focus on the vagaries of physical togetherness, like the hope that it will yield wild events like good ideas emerging from the contact of physical beings, as well as what the memo calls "positive momentum."

Since we are now in an environment where there have never been so many ways to stay in contact – Yahoo even offers its own instant messenger service – it's hard to believe the optimum path Yahoo needs to return to dominance is represented by what amounts to the cubicle model. With Web-based real-time communications (WebRTC) on the rise, telepresence robots getting severely allergic kids to school every day, and the world in general getting more connected, why would a technology leader like Yahoo clearly favor an approach largely devoid of communications technology?

Yahoo certainly needs something to get it on the comeback trail, but the question is: will this approach work? Indeed, there are advantages to the physical workplace that can only be produced by the physical workplace, and Yahoo needs all the advantages it can get right now.

Only time will tell just how valuable this approach is, and either way, it will likely found a major new argument, either in favor of or against the mobile workforce.

Edited by Braden Becker

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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