Yahoo! marches resolutely into the 19th century

In case you haven’t heard it yet, Marissa Mayer the new leader of Yahoo! has decided to terminate telecommuting for all Yahoo! employees as of June. Not just some telecommuting, all telecommuting. Her reasoning appears to be:

  1. Yahoo! needs to be more competitive;
  2. competitive organizations always have all their employees in the office every day so that they can interact with each other;
  3. therefore Yahoo! needs to have all  of its employees in the office every day so that they can interact with each other and be more competitive!

The only problem with that syllogism is that statement 2, although generally applicable around the time of Abraham Lincoln, is wrong for most information-based organizations in the 21st century. Here’s why.

The keys to competitiveness

Yahoo! has been slipping in the competitiveness arena for the past few years, thanks to Google. This is likely to have been a major factor in Yahoo!’s board choosing ex-Googleite Marissa Mayer as its new CEO. So let’s look at the basics. What makes an organization competitive is:

  • its ability to think ahead of its competitors;
  • correctly evaluate its business environment and trends;
  • marshal its resources to take advantage of new (or old) opportunities; and
  • use those resources and information to produce new and/or better products ahead of (or less expensively than) its competitors.

That seems to have worked so far for Apple. Now for a closer look at the resource parts of those statements.

Togetherness or nothing

The primary resource for an information company is still its employees. The acres of servers and terabits per second of data distribution are the engines of a search engine company but the people who think up the instructions to run them are what makes it all work. Marissa Mayer’s premise seems to be that if everybody just collocates, given a suitable working environment, the inspirations will happen. As Google’s chief financial officer Patrick Pichette is quoted as saying: “There is something magical about spending the time together.” Ms. Mayer, having come from Google, clearly follows that precept.

I maintain (and have for decades) that togetherness is good when:

  • there is uncertainty in the environment and serious checking and/or realignment is in order;
  • a group/team is newly assembled and the members need to scope out the proper interpersonal cues and reactions;
  • a project or organization is newly started—or needs progress checking and realignment;
  • team member roles and responsibilities need to be identified and assigned.

Togetherness is an impediment when:

  • the actual detailed work needs to happen, unhindered by interruptions;
  • available technology is more effective in conveying information and meaning than is face-to-face interaction;
  • scheduling conflicts prevent synchronous communication.

If you think about real life situations in locations other than the CEO’s suite, most of the time spent in getting things done falls under the non-togetherness category. Which is one of the reasons why we invented telecommuting in the first place. Senior executives’ jobs are mostly in the need-for-togetherness box. Their main job is shmoozing. Not so the rest of the staff. Most employees transition back  and forth between (often unproductive) meetings and desk work, between togetherness-useful and togetherness-a-hindrance states.

Properly managed telecommuters are more productive than their in-office-full-time compadres. Telecommuters come in to the office when togetherness is necessary, work at home or elsewhere when togetherness is an impediment. They tend to be better organized and focused than their in-office colleagues. They are more loyal to their employers, take less sick leave and are less stressed.That has been proven repeatedly over the years. They are not slackers or goof-offs.

Interestingly, one of the comments in a CNN article on the topic was that “it is hard to create a norm of physically together if the office is always half empty”. A good facilities manager would see that situation as an opportunity to reduce costs by cutting down on office space. That’s what IBM did, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually.

Baby versus bath water

It appears that Ms. Mayer has become afflicted with terminal binarity; it’s my way or the highway; startup fever. In the process Yahoo! may find itself even further down the market share slope. I hope not. I hope that a more reasoned approach to telecommuting will appear in the next few months. Before many of Yahoo!s most productive workers go elsewhere.

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