By Lawrence Axil Comras (for SFGate)
(For an alternate perspective, read Andrea Newell’s response)
I have now read several Facebook posts from people I respect, hundreds of tweets, and two strident editorials, all attacking Marissa Mayer for making people come in to work at Yahoo. They call her move “backward,” “bad business,” and worst of all, “eco-unfriendly.” One story refers to her as an empress in an ivory citadel. Having had some knowledge of the company throughout the years, I happen to think such criticism is misplaced. Let me try to put what she did in some perspective.
Here are the facts: The company is still in a death spiral. Yes, they had a good quarter. Yes, they now have some good ideas. But the company still has no viable business model going forward. They might create one, but today, what is Yahoo, really? A media company? A content company? A content organizing company? Nobody needs what Yahoo was originally built to be any more.
A number of renowned CEOs with good track records have already tried and failed to stem the decline. But even if Yahoo does come up with a new business model, the problem is that the company and company culture is broken. And since the infamous PB&J memo, Yahoos have been running for the hills, ducking for cover, and hiding out. Think of what witnessing the carnage must be like for those that remain, how that PTSD must affect job performance. They’re the last f****d company.
Yahoo never really had a core culture. As anyone who’s worked there will tell you, it’s basically been broken since the beginning. It just had tons of money and slow-to-erode existing revenue channels, so it took much longer than usual to find this out. Ms. Mayer’s only hope is to create what was actually never there to begin with: a strategic plan that all the employees buy into.
Once the core is there and it’s working, then you can let people stay home. Yes, it’s usually easier if you don’t have to go into work, and the carbon savings can be significant, but this is not business as usual. And the carbon demands of an entirely out-of-work Yahoo workforce could dwarf those of an up and running company that has a good history of being green.
And it’s not even that clear that telecommuting saves much energy or carbon. In a well-respected UC Berkeley study, Energy-Related Emissions from Telework, written by Erasmia Kitou and Arpad Horvath, the authors argue that despite saving carbon on the telecommute, “home-related impacts due to an employee spending additional time at home could potentially offset these reductions,” because office environments are so much more energy efficient per individual than home environments.
The sense of outrage from various eco-pundits or such self-styled mom-pundits as Lisa Belkin or Estelle Sobel Erasmus really misses the point. This is not about energy savings, nor is it about feminism or family rights. It’s about the employer’s rights. If employees are that interested in staying home, it should be brought to their attention that on its current trajectory the company may soon be able to afford all (now ex) employees ample opportunity to stay home as much as they would like.
As a CEO, it is easy to start your reign in strict mode and then ease up. It’s much harder to rescind so-called entitlements. It took some guts to change policy company wide and essentially say: “Hey! You have a high paying job at Yahoo You are in the top .1% of the pyramid. The boss wants you to actually come into work. It might be harder on your family, but the company that is paying your salary needs to hit the reset button! Everybody circle up!” But sometimes that’s what it takes.
Lawrence Axil Comras is a software designer, public speaker and serial entrepreneur. Until 2010 he was the CEO of Greenhome.com, a strong voice in the environmental movement. In the 1990’s he was a Product Manager for Broderbund Software, helped launch QuickTime for Apple, and helped produce the first multi-media CD-ROM.