I have been watching with more than a bit of fascination the firestorm of discourse set off by the outing of a supposedly confidential e-mail Yahoo HR head Jackie Reses sent company employees a few days ago that basically ordered remote workers to “get thee to a Yahoo office or else.” First exposed by the website All Things D, and reproduced below for your viewing pleasure, the pros and cons since this first went public have been intensely debated, became fodder for the weekend TV pundit shows in the U.S., and even the comments on comments have gone viral.
So why at this point am I weighing in? What’s left to say? In answer to the first, I was asked by TMC CEO Rich Tehrani if I thought this was a trend. To that I say, NO WAY. As to the second, there is more to say that I have not seen explored in much detail in other places or that needs further explanation. In fact, it is why if I were on the Board of Yahoo I would ask Ms. Mayer to find another line of work. I would ask her solely for the sake of the company to be a “stay away mom.”
Ms. Mayer’s hypocrisy and insult to less well compensated working moms (the other 99.999 percent) of working women who cannot afford to build a daycare pleasure place at their office has been rather thoroughly vetted. The lunacy of believing that marking an e-mail “confidential” and not understanding that the act alone is an invitation for it to be leaked is all of the place and almost inexplicable. The academic “experts” have voiced their opinions about all of the studies that show those who work at home, male or female, are likely to be happier, more productive and loyal but less likely to be promoted. This is now a 10 year trend and a train for a host of really good reasons has left the station. Various C-levels, particularly those at tech companies, have expressed either support or disdain for Ms. Mayer based on their views not only of the productivity and value of giving employees physical workspace and hours options, but also whether this was a good way to “shake things up” at troubled Yahoo.
To be honest, I find most of this interesting, but not compelling. My opinions are certainly colored by my age (more senior), sex (male) and the fact that for the last 20 years in a variety of entrepreneurial and executive positions, I have worked out of my home exclusively, or as I do now for TCM remotely for much of the week. In fact, as a result of these experiences, I think I have learned a couple of things about remote working.
First, there needs to be recognition by the employer and employee that working remotely is not for everyone, nor should it be. Yes this is about the nature of work to be done, and the availability of the tools for it to be done in an optimal manner. But, is also about temperament, personal discipline (for example, the level of distractibility tolerance) , clear understandings of responsibilities and accountabilities, managing expectations on both sides, the need or lack thereof of physical human interaction, and a host of other factors.
Remote working is neither a workplace panacea nor pariah. It needs to be an option where employer and employee strive to make sure the round pegs are not be jammed into square holes to the detriment of everyone involved.
So why would I dismiss Ms. Mayer. Let me count the reasons.
First. Having your HR head do your dirty work is an act of executive cowardice of the first order. At major companies I have worked for or with, when something as important as a major change in HR policy was planned, there was always an “all hands” meeting with those not on premise brought in via broadcast and webcast so the CEO could explain the change and answer questions. Ms. Mayer would have expected, for example, if her compensation was to be lowered that the news be delivered in person so she could hear the explanation rather than be informed through an e-mail.
Plus, according to the Reses e-mail, (which if you are cynical you may think was sent in case this blew up to provide Ms. Mayer “plausible deniability”), the new Yahoo is all about the value of face-to-face interactions. Really? Given the opportunity, Ms. Mayer did not have the courage to show her face let alone have employees interact with it.
Second. In his biography of Steve Jobs, writer Walter Isaacson several times talks of the harmful effects of Mr. Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” Such a field is a possible explanation of Ms. Mayer’s decision. The reason is her actions appear to indicate she has not walked through the “worker bee” portion of her own HQ. If the Yahoo HQ is like most of the Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley offices I visit, while there may be a more open feel than traditional work spaces, the knowledge workers I see typically have headsets on, and are busy sending text messages to the people sitting next to them rather than talking to them.
Part of this behavior is generational. However, I suspect part is also a result of the fact that they may be fearful of getting up from their desk because it might be viewed as them being a slacker. This is a valid fear in a workplace likely to have video surveillance and where executives monitor/record on a spot basis or all the time employee e-mail and voice conversations.
In this world, the parking lot might be the safe place for casual and impromptu interactions, but not the water cooler or the health food bar with it single cup coffee machine beckoning with all of those choices. In addition, as the TV broadcasters know all too well from the proliferation of cable stations and the Internet, choice and the ability to have time-shifted interactions mean the much beloved “water cooler effect” is history except for mass live events like the Super Bowl, World Cup or a Royal Wedding, and even these get taped. In the modern workplace, for whatever reason, most people work at their desk and rarely have impromptu at work interactions. And, the only “brainstorming” sessions tend to be ones demanded. There is nothing impromptu about them.
In fact, it would be interesting to find out just how much impromptu water-cooler conversations Ms. Mayer has had since becoming the CEO. My suspicion also is that she is traveling less and doing more of the company’s business via remote communications. This is not a sexist observation, but more an acknowledgement that when you are running a global company, where members of a meeting are likely to not be physically present with you, they are remote working. If they are a C-level, does this mean their value is diminished as a result of their not “being there?”
In a real-time world, one would think that the value of remote communications and the ability to use it for the creation of competitive sustainable business advantage would be an asset and not a liability.
The bottom line is that the nature of work, thanks to technology has changed. Ms. Mayer’s insistence of having people back in the office is a slap in the face to her colleagues in the industry looking to make unified communications and collaboration tools more immersive and key to driving what they hope is the next wave of productivity and innovation in the connected global economy. I don’t know about you, but having somebody running a tech company who does not understand the nature of modern work would be disturbing to me as a Yahoo Board member. Although, given their track record with CEOs it might not bother them.
Third. For those of you who are too young to remember, I first became somewhat famous many years ago when John Akers was CEO of IBM and because of his lackluster performance was forced to announce the first layoffs in the company’s history. I was not an IT financial or industry analyst at the time but a sick associate asked me to pinch hit for him at the meeting. I got bored with the financials after Akers announced that the company would be instituting a Management By Incentive Plan (MIP) whereby headcount would be reduced by incenting people with lucrative early retirement packages to leave the company. The financial video press ambushed me as the first person to leave the meeting and asked me what I thought of the firings. I said, that it sounded stupid since it was likely that the best and most creative people would be the ones likely to take IBM up on the offer. This statement made me a 15 second star on the television news stations the next day. It also turned out to be prescient.
Ms. Mayer, by not taking personal accountability for the policy she wants implemented, has already destroyed what was left of the morale at Yahoo. Plus, it is no secret in Silicon Valley that Yahoo has had a brain drain, and that all the creature features that Ms. Mayer has given to loyalists cannot make up for a culture that has seemingly so little regard for the personal circumstances of its employees. At the end of the day, while Ms. Mayer in some quarters is being applauded for a clever way of “getting rid of dead wood,” the more likely scenario is that talented people are going to view the company’s expressed intransigence on this subject as a really good reason to leave. And, for the moment, there are lots of places to go which only exacerbates the situation.
Again, if I were on the Yahoo Board, I would find a policy that is likely to drive talented people away at a time when the company is trying to retain them and attract new talent problematic at best. Let’s just say at this point they cannot be feeling the love of all of the adverse publicity they have generated particularly from women’s groups.
Fourth. The point being made in the business press that changing the Yahoo home page and giving employees iPhones is not a strategy is a good one. The Mayer regime thus far looks oddly like the ones that have come before it. This should cause alarm with the Board and investors.
Fifth. When you add up the first four points, and toss in a heaping helping of this being an indication of previous regimes’ inability to properly supervise the in-house talent, be they in HQ or never coming into the office because they worked remotely exclusively, this is a failure of leadership. It is not and should not be construed as a judgment call on the value of remote work and remote workers.
Outside of the reality distortion field, in the real world for every poorly managed company like Yahoo looking to reign in what appear to be a cadre of less than productive remote workers there are legions of companies that have for example almost all of their contact center agents working remotely who have the highest customer satisfaction ratings in their industry segment. Jet Blue is a great example.
The bottom line here is Ms. Mayer’s decision-making on this important subject does not bode well for her acumen in turning Yahoo around. Her insistence over the weekend to just “ride this out,” shows how out of touch she is in understanding how to manage a pr disaster. Annoying what could be your best employees, while putting doubts in the minds of all employees, may be a good way to reduce headcount in the short-term, but is starts a company down a fast and slippery slope to oblivion and Yahoo certainly did not need an extra push in that direction.
If I were a Yahoo Board member, I would ask for Ms. Mayer to step aside. There is now ample evidence that her brand of leadership is not the answer to the company’s problems and may in fact exacerbate them. The problem is that this Board, even with its new members that came on after the last CEO embarrassment, thought Ms. Mayer was the answer. YAHOO!
YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD
Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J, we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.
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.
Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.
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