Marissa Mayer left Google to tackle Yahoo’s ailments. Recently, she took on telecommuting.
Yahoo employees were pleased with the new iPhones and free food from the new boss-a Google-esque touch—but depending on the speaker, this “bold,” “outrageous” or “1950s” decree eliminating the ability to work from home has stirred up comment, incredulity and outrage from coast to coast.
Beneath the visceral reactions, I see three important issues:
1. Telecommuting is progressing from a questionable practice toward an unquestioned entitlement.
2. The option to telecommute seems increasingly based on personal need rather than business imperative.
3. Many successful organizations reject telecommuting as a productivity tool, and Mayer thrived in one at Google.
A trend toward a new conventional wisdom?
For the record, I am a longtime flexible-schedule consultant and advocate. I cut my teeth managing my first flexible workplace 40 years ago in Silicon Valley.
I support offsite work and have run an all-remote consulting firm for a dozen years, but I only practice what I see as business-beneficial flexibility.
Yahoo is not a high-profile flex firm. But like hundreds of employers, it has joined the trend of allowing employees to work partly or fully offsite.
It may have done this for strong business reasons: to reduce office costs, hire remote stars, retain great talent, reduce its carbon footprint, or enhance productivity.
Or not. For all any of us know, Yahoo may have simply joined a trend toward a new conventional wisdom.
A new focus on the business
As recently as a decade ago, another conventional wisdom reigned. Most managers thought telecommuting was an unwise gamble. Wouldn’t “work at home” really mean watching Oprah, doing laundry and being AWOL from all that flowed from the water cooler?
Judging from the blog, Twitter, news and talk show outpouring, there is a new conventional wisdom. In it, Marissa Mayer has done the unthinkable. According to various complaints, she is a new mom who is denying women the right to work from home with their families. She broke agreements people took for granted. She is swimming upstream, trying to bring back “the old GM” model.
Bogus or not, Mayer grounds her actions in a vision of the best way for Yahoo to do business. According to the Yahoo memo: “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.”
Most intriguing to me is a simple difference: the old conventional wisdom and Yahoo’s new focus on the business-being productive, collaborative, accessible and innovative.
Flexibility: More of a perk than a business driver?
I believe one can work remotely and achieve these outcomes. People’s criticisms of Mayer focus largely on the personal impact, disruption, inconvenience, and retro nature of it all. But who speaks for the business?
To survive, thrive and grow, flexible work needs to enable collaboration and deliver concrete business gains along with employee satisfaction. Perhaps Yahoo’s approach delivered these things, and Mayer either swept them aside or ranked other values more highly. More likely, she saw flexibility as a perk and not an essential business driver.
The greater truth in this dust-up may lie in a simple fact: Marissa Mayer matured as a manager and achieved stunning success at Google—a company noted for its celebration of long hours collaborating in the office and no great passion for offsite work. Is she likely to adopt a wildly different organizational model? I doubt it.
Google built an immensely successful and powerful business and organizational model. No matter how business—beneficial, productive and collaborative a flexible model may be, it could face tough going at Yahoo and Google.
Nothing less than a robust form of offsite work is likely to prevail and assure offsite workers in other companies that new ways of working can overcome old ways of thinking.