In the past week, since the release of an internal email indicating that Yahoo would no longer support remote workers, there have been hundreds of articles and blog posts (I guess this adds one more) and tens of thousands of tweets and comments.
Of course, controversy is nothing new for Yahoo. Once the darling of online media in its infancy, Yahoo (YHOO) has attracted an outsized amount of criticism in recent years. Of course, the company has made some dumb moves, so much of the critique is warranted. But this time, I think it's a bit silly.
Is Marissa Mayer's new policy right for Yahoo?
As an outsider, it's really hard to tell. Every company has its own unique culture. I've worked for a company which was completely virtual. We had employees in dozens of cities around the globe. And, from the start, we put in place tools and processes to support a global, virtual business. As a result, we had great communications, both internally and with clients, and smooth handoffs on the engineering side.
I've also worked for a company that was centered around an in-office experience. Communications there were often informal. Some of the most important decisions were made in hallway discussions between the cofounders and members of their management team. If you were out of the office that week, you might have little chance to weigh in on that discussion. Is that good? Well, it worked well for them.
The key is that every company's culture is unique. There's a reason why many successful startups use a single, shared space. It encourages collaboration and information sharing in ways that don't always happen with digital communication.
One important thing to note from the Yahoo discussions is that it seems that only a small percentage of their 11,000 person workforce works remotely. The policy has been described as affecting "hundreds" of employees. If 95% of your employees work in the office, it's likely that the bulk of your processes and systems are aimed at supporting that environment. Those who work from home may miss critical information or be unable to contribute in the same ways that they might if they were in the office. If it were 25%, not 5%, it might actually be easier to support. The communications processes and tools would have to be in place to make it work.
And let's keep in mind that many tech companies discourage remote working. According to Google CFO Patrick Pichette, as noted in All Things D:
‘How many people telecommute at Google?’ And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’ … There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’
From some of the fallout, it's clear that the impetus for this decision was, in part, due to frustrations with the overall culture at Yahoo. Kara Swisher notes that "Mayer has been particularly irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty by 5 pm".
I hope that's not the primary driver of the new policy. I don't believe you'll create a more productive workforce by simply forcing people to spend more time in the office. Yahoo needs to attract the types of employees who will be passionate about what they do, and not those focused on doing as little as possible.
If I were launching a new company today, I would learn towards the virtual model or a hybrid virtual/office mix. The advantages are great and the disadvantages are modest, provided you design for it. But let's cut Mayer some slack here. She's still in the early days of trying to change a culture in efforts to turnaround a company facing deep challenges. She needs to make the decisions on how to revamp their culture and their business. The scorecard for her effectiveness should be looked at over several years and not quarter-to-quarter or based on specific policies.
image of Marissa Mayer courtesy World Economic Forum.
image of Patrick Pichette courtesy C2-MTL