Banning Telecommuting at Yahoo Was a Poor Management Decision

yahoo logo(for an alternate perspective, read Lawrence Axil Comras’s response)

The business world has been buzzing this week about CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting at Yahoo, except for the “occasional day spent waiting for the cable guy.”

Parent bloggers have accused her of stomping on work/life balance (while she installs a personal nursery next to her own office), environmentalists say she’s contributing to the carbon emissions problem, and others condemn her for instituting an outdated work culture and ignoring studies that champion telecommuting as promoting more productivity.

While her mandate does stomp on work/life balance, ignore any environmental impact from increased commuting, portray the c-suite’s attitude as overbearing and look suspiciously like “backdoor layoffs” – underneath all that, it is simply a very poor management decision.

Mayer was recruited into the top slot at Yahoo from Google mere months ago, ostensibly to turn the company around. To do that requires not only forward thinking from a product standpoint, but to engage with and motivate employees. She did supply employees with smartphones and implement free meals, however, eliminating an employee benefit (and a very important one to many) in such a global manner, while at the same time insulting your workers by saying that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home” (see the whole memo here), is not a way to engage or inspire workers.

Leaders often have to make many hard and unpopular decisions, but they should be made based on data and a measurable forecast of how these decisions will benefit the company in the future. They should be made by looking ahead and weighing any perceived benefit, while considering the ramifications and fallout from such a decision as it affects the retention of current employees, attraction of future employees and the way employees now have to regard their employment terms and benefits.

With a telecommuting option, parents with sick children or other personal reasons they may have to miss work (outside of the stated cable guy exception), could telecommute and not have to take the day off. Taking this new policy at face value, parents will have to burn paid time off instead and Yahoo loses that day of productivity. And those days can add up, impacting productivity and morale. Yahoo’s HR department could have couched this change in terms of “pulling back on telecommuting to foster more in-person collaboration” or limiting telecommuting to a smaller percentage of time, or leaving it to the discretion of individual managers who could prove its worth for their team members – but it didn’t.

Mayer’s defenders claim that many people at Yahoo that telecommute are deadwood and unproductive, so she’s doing the right thing. That still doesn’t justify a global mandate, but indicates the need for an analysis of who is productive and who isn’t, and, yes, getting rid of people who are abusing this benefit, and being upfront about it. If this is a backdoor way of trimming the workforce, it’s completely arbitrary and, frankly, lazy. By focusing only on people who telecommute, it ignores the fact that people are perfectly capable of wasting time in an office, with their new smartphone and over a free meal. And, this is Yahoo, a company that certainly attracts bright, competent people and to say that the company can’t trust them to telecommute responsibly, and the problem is so widespread that the only cure is a total ban, is either poor hiring practices or poor management, or both. If reorganization and cuts are needed – analyze where, and make them. Backed by hard data, such decisions might not be popular, but they are transparent and defendable. Punishing everyone for the sins of a few is short-sighted and petty.

If this policy does result in people leaving the company and that was its intent, it’s hard to believe that all those jobs are nonessential, and they would certainly be losing good people along with some poor performers. In that case, Yahoo will have to rehire and retrain replacements, and that is a significant cost to the company. As for the people who were hired to work remotely in another city and have no Yahoo office, is the company offering relocation packages at its expense?

Some say that fellow tech giants Google and Facebook also expect office face time for collaboration, and this is probably true, but neither company has been accused of banning telecommuting altogether. With the numerous communication options available, the assumption is that people who are able to telecommute utilize that option when it works for them and the company.

Contrast this policy against Google’s (Mayer’s former employer) “obsessive” research into the happiness factor of their employees. Google takes the time to assess their employees and what does and doesn’t motivate them, and in 2013, for the fourth year in a row, was named the best company to work for by Fortune magazine. Google’s HR People Operations program (POPS) figured out how to cut their female employee attrition rate by 50 percent by offering five months of paid maternity leave to be used in any manner the employee chooses (saving the company money on rehiring and retraining), it determined that its hiring/interview process was too exhausting and trimmed it, and figured out the best way to give employees more money in a way to make them the happiest. Prasad Setty, who heads POPS’ “people analytics” group, told Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, “Our mission is to have all people decisions be informed by data.”

After this latest move by Yahoo, Manjoo quoted David Fullerton, the vice president of engineering at the Web firm Stack Exchange, on telecommuting, “As a manager, I can’t easily know how many hours each person on my team is working. This is actually good for me because it forces me to look at what they’ve done.” Manjoo goes on to write, “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.”

Good management is knowing and understanding your employees, their strengths and weaknesses, and what motivates them in order to foster their best work, help them be successful and accomplish your company’s goals. Sweeping mandates like Yahoo’s demonstrate no understanding of individuals. Perhaps the culture of Yahoo needs to be changed, but it’s hard to imagine that this is the way to do it and generate positive results.

Andrea Newell is an editor at TriplePundit. You can follow her on Twitter: @anewell3p.

[image credit: Eric Miraglia: Flickr cc]

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.