Leading Geeks

Can they actually be led?

Jumping on the “WTF Yahoo!” bandwagon (re: working remotely)

I realize that pretty much everyone is writing about the Yahoo! work from home debacle (hi Jim!).  Just in case you’re living under a rock, here’s the salient part of the memo:

Image representing Yahoo! as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

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.

I’ve heard lots of good and bad points about this, but several things just boggle my mind. Here’s my list.  In order to attempt to be entertaining, I’ll start each point with my actual knee-jerk thoughts.

  • “Well, there goes your recruiting.” I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand the work from home (WFH) culture while I was at law firms, since most firms have a pretty strict not-working-from-home policy for non-lawyers (we’ll get into the nightmares of that haves vs. have-nots culture some other day). Now that I’ve worked at tech companies (HubSpot and Amazon), I’ve realized that being able to WFH or work remotely is an essential part of recruiting top talent. Your candidate for kick-butt lead engineer needs to take care of his mom in Tuscon? Let him work from there 3 weeks a month. Or permanently. He’ll work better with an easier life, and you don’t miss out on his awesome talent.
  • “Dude, if people aren’t being productive remotely, MANAGE THEM BETTER!” I don’t think Yahoo’s primary problem is with remote workers – I think it’s with craptastic managers.  As Jim points out, “Effectively managing remote workers requires more effort and overhead.” Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. To me, it doesn’t sound like the problem is with remote workers, but with crappy managers. This is an awfully expensive and ham-fisted way to save your bad managers’ jobs.
  • “If you need to lay people off, lay them off. Don’t do this BS that makes you look like you’re managing in the stone ages.” Yeah, so I went to a kick-butt business school that made it really clear to me that remote workforces and the ability to WFH is truly the wave of the future. It doesn’t mean that you have to go to business school to realize that this is a giant leap backwards in modern management practices.  I mean, do we not have videoconferencing, phones, planes, instant messenger, and the ability and money to use these?
  • “Yes, face-to-face has kinda neat value. However, if your employees don’t value that enough to come in more regularly, you have a culture problem.” If your culture lacks the collaborative spirit that makes employees value corporate visits and coming in regularly, you have a larger culture problem. Ticking them off by instating this policy isn’t going to fix your culture.

I realize that very little of this hasn’t been said already, but I just had to contribute to the discussion.  Am I right? Am I crazier than usual?

9 responses to “Jumping on the “WTF Yahoo!” bandwagon (re: working remotely)

  1. Jim Darsigny February 26, 2013 at 11:56 am

    You are eloquent and on-point as usual, Jenn. I think you are right on every point. I think also though that, outside the technology sector, the equation is a little different. Oh yeah, and that “haves and have nots” culture that you mentioned is a very big problem for a lot of organizations. The bigger they are, the worse it gets. Having said that, I’d like to work from home in Honolulu, please. Not because it’s a tropical paradise but because it’s 5,000 miles+ away from everyone who makes my life difficult!

  2. Jennie Morris February 26, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Think you nailed it, Jenn, with one exception: look for Yahoo managers to be complaining, nine months down the road, that employees are spending too much time in meetings and hanging out around the Keurig machines. The real work of a CEO is to put an inspiring vision forward that people will want to work on.

    • Jenn Steele March 1, 2013 at 11:00 am

      You’re right – bad management is bad management, and bad culture is bad culture. I love coming into the office for the meetings and kitchen interactions – I’m much more “productive” as an individual contributor at home (needless to say – IC is not my primary skillset!).

  3. Catherine Devlin (@catherinedevlin) February 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

    My company (Dell KACE) has been predominantly full-time telecommuters from the beginning; though there are times when I miss face-to-face collaboration, there are many more times when I get more done precisely because I’m at home. I think that, given a specific group of employees, there’s room to argue about it but the balance comes up in favor of remote work.

    But, of course, “given a specific group of employees” is the big stumbling block, because a set of employees is never *given*. Dell KACE is based in Silicon Valley, within sight of Google HQ, but it does not have to arm-wrestle Google for every employee; rather, it can cherry-pick the ones it wants from the entire globe. We have almost unique access to experts because they happen to live in Dayton or Bozeman or Prague.

    If Yahoo! were the only tech employer on earth, its workforce would have no choice but to take whatever it dishes out. If it were the only employer in its area, it would at least be able to retain the ones who were unable to move. But it’s located in the white-hot center of talent demand. It’s really hard to imagine how a choice that will doom both recruitment and retention can possibly be logical, presuming that they intend to continue as a tech company.

    • Jenn Steele March 1, 2013 at 11:05 am

      And I assume that you guys hire specifically for good telecommuters. Maybe Y! didn’t, and they’re trying to fix that now.

      Very good point about talent-wrestling!

  4. Randy Hill February 27, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    What company do you run and how many do you employ? Where does your insight into hiring and motivating employees come from? While it’s critically important for a business to understand it’s customers needs, that doesn’t make most customers good judges of smart business decisions, even when product is a “job” and the “customers’ are prospective employees.

    The person who should care the most about whether it’s a smart decision is Marisa Meyer. Do you really think she did it out of ego, or to punish employees, or for some other lame reason that says more about the person positing it than it does about Marisa? Clearly Marisa had to know that she would have to deal with a great deal of unhappy, if not hysterical, employees by making this decision. Occam’s razor tells you Marisa thought it was very important to make this change, that it will be good for Yahoo, most likely from more productive employees.

    So let’s address your points one by one.

    1) There goes recruiting.
    Depends on who you want to recruit. My second tech job was at a subsidiary of an extremely well known silicon valley company. It had tremendous HR polices, was extremely concerned about it’s employees happiness, making it a great place to work or the lazy and unambitious. If work from home had been a standard perk of the time, the place would have been empty all week. I ended up leaving in less than 2 years (more than a year after I should have) because I was frustrated working 60 hour weeks trying to build things, while my team-mates were happy with 30 hours of work (and 10 hours standing around bitching about how the employee friendly policies should be even more generous).

    I left to go work at and help build high output organizations. I recruited people who were ambitious, driven, and we did some really great things. I can’t imagine working for an organization where I seldom see my team-mates, and have little idea of how committed they are to my projects. High output people want to work with high output people, I think there is a legitimate argument that slackers gravitate towards the WFH companies, not that most WFH employees are lazy, but that those who are lazy are much more likely to rank WFH as an important benefit.

    Yahoo has been a large enough failure the last decade that it’s likely it needs a substantial culture change, and less coddling of underperformers and overpaid “superstars” who aren’t committed to making it succeed, while replacing them with hungry, hard working, newcomers might be a great start.

    2) MANAGE THEM BETTER!
    So easily said, yet you admit that it costs more to manage them remotely, but blithely dismiss that cost as inconsequential. It’s pretty damn hard to motivate people when you barely see them. And you ignore the hardest part of motivation is motivating yourself. Right now I’m back doing a 2 man startup. If I or my partner works from home, we aren’t as productive and we know it. He knows I’m watching him and he me, and that prevents me from giving into natural human impulses to knock off early, take long lunches, etc.

    You are correct that it’s possible to motivate and manage remote workers well, but you ignore how much harder it is, and how much costlier. It’s so damn hard to manage and motivate people you share an office with, and even harder to hire good managers to do it in your organization, why would you want to layer on another level of difficulty? You are ignoring the importance of building a “high output” culture, and things like working in teams together at the same location can be a key part of that.

    3) If you want to lay them off, lay them off
    Can’t agree more, but you really undercut your credibility by mentioning you learned that WFH was the wave of the future from business school. Anyone who thinks they can learn how to run a business in school probably believes they can learn how to make a movie from film critics. Academics live in a cocoon, MBAs are door openers, when the rubber hits the road your future is determined by results and accomplishments and your ability to assess and respond to constantly changing conditions that often are unique and don’t come out of a textbook chapter.

    4) Face to Face is a Culture problem
    Yes, a culture problem that can be heavily exascerbated by a culture of people working remotely. I went to Jims office, found out he’s not here on tuesdays. Left a message, he didn’t call me back until after I went home. I WFH on wednesday, when I get back on Thursday, found a note from Jim on my door. It’s easy for people to give up, silo themselves in their own roles, when barriers make it harder to meet and work with team-mates and others in the organization.

    Critical thinking is the most important skill to have in business. You were quick to criticize Marisa without first putting yourself in her shoes to ask, “Why?”. Too often people who disagree characterize their opponent as a stereotype, to make it easy to assume their motives are stupidity, greed, arrogance, etc. It’s kind of hard to characterize Marisa in any of those veins given her history, but I guess this decision will start the ball rolling on the “Marisa is an arrogant, out of touch, greedy, thoughtless, fat cat” meme with many.

    I don’t know if she’s making the right decision, but if I had to bet I’d put a large portion of my net worth on Marisa vs. her critics. And anyone who criticizes the decision before exploring Marisa’s motives, the problems she’s trying to address, and the alternatives she had, won’t have the business skills to manage a fruit stand.

    • Jenn Steele March 1, 2013 at 11:03 am

      Thanks for commenting. If you dislike what I say (or don’t trust my 7 years running IT departments at law firms or my consulting management experience at a startup), I would definitely encourage you not to read my blog.

      Most of the blog is about being a better manager. Yes, it’s hard & expensive, but it’s worth it. Enjoy your startup, since it sounds like a great place for you!

  5. Pingback: What Does Yahoo's Ban On Telecommuting Mean? | The Source For NAR Commercial Real Estate

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