The biggest tech news so far this year has been an announcement by Yahoo that they want “all hands on deck” and that all work-from-home is being cancelled as from June. Irked Yahoo employees have leaked the memo that was sent by HR head Jackie Reses. Apparently the move comes from the very top, from CEO Marissa Mayer, and will be applied without exception to all remote workers, both those who do so full-time and any who have flexible work from home arrangements. Read the memo and some initial analysis here.

The key message is that Yahoo wants to become “the very best place to work”, and wants to do this using “communication and collaboration” and “working side-by-side”. But then, the real intent is clear: Yahoo wants to be “more productive, efficient and fun” and says that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home”.

The response from a world that is assuming that more remote working is the future has been loud and incredulous. Is this really the way forward? Has Marissa Mayer made a huge misstep here? Or does she know something we don’t?

What’s going on?

We know that Mayer is under pressure to produce profits at Yahoo, and does not have much more time to deliver a fairly radical turnaround. We also know that she has a fairly forceful leadership style. Business Insider resported a few months ago that an unnamed staffer told them of a team of Yahoo’s product designers who pitched a new product to Mayer. She approved the product on the condition that they get it to market months ahead of their own schedule. Then Mayer supposedly told them they had exactly one week to figure out how to get the product out by the end of the year, and that they would all be fired if they couldn’t get it done.

The stated reason behind the move by Mayer is that she had done an analysis of the VPN (virtual private network) data of remote workers, and Yahoo employees working from home were not logging into the system for enough hours during the day. Supporters of the move have largely pointed to two things: the fact that work from home people can slack off, and the need to have everyone in the office if you’re going to effect quick culture change.

The second reason may be right, but the first one seems spurious. Most remote workers are unlikely to be constantly on the VPN, especially if the system itself is not as user friendly or helpful as it could be. And if you’ve employed a bunch of slackers, you can bet that they’ll slack off in your office almost as well as they could slack off at home. The only difference is that you’ll have lost some productive hours due to traffic and commuting time.

Studies on telecommuting are conflicted right now, mainly because it’s a nuanced thing. It works well for some functions, but not others. It works well for some people, but not others. However, it seems that, in general, in increases productivity, wellness and motivation for most people.

So, why did she do it?

There are four possibilities, we believe.

The first is a very cynical view, but certainly is possible. Yahoo needs to reduce headcount. Maybe there are no “right people” to get rid of at this stage. This plan by Mayer may simply be an easy, quick and cheap way to reduce headcount, because there is no doubt that a fair proportion of the flexible workers will look elsewhere for employment fairly soon. And if there is staff bloat at Yahoo, and some remote workers are just not getting their jobs done, then why not measure their outputs (rather than the VPN login time as an input) and fire people based on performance?

The second is that this is an example of corporate “we have to do something” actions. Being seen to do something big and bold buys time in the corporate world, and maybe doing something was better than doing nothing. I don’t think this is what happened here – I think Mayer is too clever for that. But it is at least a possibility.

The third is that Mayer’s vision of what she wants Yahoo to be and the culture she’s trying to create require her to have her team together and in the same physical space. Changing a culture is tough work at the best of times. Trying to do so when a good number of your key players are not in the room is almost impossible. Mayer might have a very specific cultural change piece in mind right now, and feels she can fast track this by having everyone together. She’d probably be correct if this is her goal, and she may find that a few years from now, with a new culture in place, she can open the doors again and allow flexi working.

If this is what is happening, it doesn’t make any sense why she hasn’t said so. The reasons she’s given all have to do with something that feels very outdated and reeks of the corporate control that I for one hoped was dying out with the digital age.

Some Yahoo employees who are already leaving have indicated that if Yahoo offered systems that supported their personal lives, such as high-quality on-site day care, they’d be more inclined to stay (although Mayer herself built a nursery next to her office to house her young baby). Mayer has implemented some of these support systems, including free food in the cafeteria (she did this in her first week) – although some argue that’s more about giving people a reason to work longer. But apparently not enough. There’s a big danger right now: that Yahoo will be full of ex-remote workers who don’t want to be there. This will do nothing to remedy the productivity and collaboration problem Mayer seems to be concerned about.

The fourth alternative is that Mayer is desperately trying to recreate the conditions that she remembers at Google, in the hope that this will replicate the success she had at Google. This is very dangerous. Google famously have created exceptionally funky office spaces and expects people to work long hours while there. Mayer herself was well known for being one of the Google employees who racked up the most hours per week. It seems from the outside that Google employees want to work in their offices precisely because of the special office environment. It might have been better for Mayer to work on creating the type of office that employees want to work in, rather than mandating the move.

My understanding of Google is also that have a lot of really useful digital collaboration tools. A VPN is not one of these. Maybe Mayer has looked at the wrong metric to make this decision. Mike Stopforth of Cerebra thinks so, identifying Yahoo’s lack of a social business tool as a key problem for the company. I tend to agree with him.

Is Mayer right?

Simply stated, I don’t think so.

Farhad Manjoo, of Slate, sums up my viewpoint:

The larger problem with the ban is its apparent cluelessness about how creative work occurs. Marissa Mayer is said to be a devoted office worker. Both her admirers and critics call her a workaholic, a woman who’s gotten ahead not just through talent but also by working longer hours than most other people. Yahoo is a Web and media company, a firm teeming with engineers, designers, writers, and editors—people whose work not only can be accomplished remotely, but also people who may find working at home to be a better way to get things done. This decision suggests that Mayer doesn’t understand one of the most basic ideas about managing workers—that different people work in different ways, and that some kinds of pursuits are inhibited, rather than improved, by time in the office. The working-from-home ban also reveals that Mayer doesn’t know how to measure her workers’ performance.

How should you respond?

I suppose the real question is: is remote working good for you and your company? One of the best articles in response to this question and Yahoo’s recall of remote workers was published in FastCompany by the lead developer of StackExchange, David Fullerton. Read his seven great reasons to encourage remote working here.

One of our clients made an interesting suggestion as we discussed this. She said that she felt that people should not be allowed to work from home before the age of thirty. She felt that you needed to get an understanding of what an office culture was, and how face to face connection worked in an office before being allowed to leave. In that way, you knew what you were missing, and would work hard to replicate that while working from home. This also fits well with general life stages as well: you have more time and space in your life to devote yourself to long hours and gruelling office culture when you’re younger, and more demands from home and family in your mid thirties to forties. I like this thought. A lot.

Managing virtual teams requires a different approach to leadership, a different set of metrics and a different approach to organisational design. I like Todd Nielsen’s take on it and I found McKinsey Quarterly’s case study on Symantec an interesting read. It isn’t for everyone, but it is most certainly the way of the future.

I am sure Yahoo will find this out. The hard way.

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