Monday, February 25, 2013

Marissa Mayer and the End of Telecommuting at Yahoo

The Wall Street Journal "At Work" blog has a terrific post about Marissa Mayer's memo to all Yahoo employees essentially ending telecommuting at the firm.   Some people reacted very negatively to her announcement.  How could she ban working from home given the proliferation of technologies that enable virtual collaboration?  What type of message did this move send to working parents trying very hard to juggle professional and personal commitments responsibly?  Would this announcement scare away some terrific talented people? 

The blog post points out, however, that there are significant downsides to extensive telecommuting at a firm.   The bottom line:  Face-to-face interaction does promote more effective collaboration and information sharing in many instances.   People do lose the ability to read nonverbal gestures if they are not physically present at meetings.   Moreover, many ideas get shared when people bump into one another in the hallways or at the cafeteria.   As Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory argues, innovation occurs through the "random collision of unusual suspects" in many cases.  We can't design or plan those interactions.  However, the right type of working environment at a firm can promote that type of interaction.   If many people work from home, they don't have those opportunities to engage with others in unplanned ways.  

The challenge, though, is that many people may interpret Mayer's move as a belief that telecommuters are simply not working hard enough outside the office. That interpretation may cause a drop in morale at the firm.  In addition, some very talented people may simply not be willing to engage in a lengthy commute each day.   Finally, not all jobs are alike.  While some tasks require intense collaboration and may benefit from having people in the office together, other jobs may not require frequent interaction with colleagues.   Does a blanket policy make sense when work comes in many different forms, and jobs differ significantly in terms of interdependence?  


Anonymous said...

There are positives and negatives to a blanket policy such as the one mentioned in this post. I do think there is value in having everyone in the office regardless of job differences. Having a full and interactive office can contribute significantly to building the organizational culture and give employees something to identify with. Could this help if the morale is decreased? Maybe so, but the effort might have to start from the top and trickle down.

Jagadeesh Venugopal said...

In my job, hallway conversations, discussions over coffee in the cafeteria, and impromptu talk at someone's cube have all led to significant business decisions. Some of my best work moments have been times when three people gathered over a white board to hash out ideas.

I feel that one of the things that makes work fun is the possibility of interacting with other people, sharing your ideas with them and learning something from them in turn. I think work is not just transactional -- its relationship based, and you build friendships at work. You can't build relationships and friendships if you're not present.

Besides, when you're face to face, it is so much easier to gage their reaction to a given issue than it is via email. Its also been my observation that if you send people an email, it has a greater chance of being ignored than if you showed up at their cube or office, and asked the same question.

There are limited circumstances and jobs where work-from-home can be managed. An example is a competent person who's a parent with kids that wants to work from home one or two days a week. Depending on the nature of the person's job and the person's performance, exceptions can be made. Another set of exceptions is for genuine health reasons.

At the end of the day, being a knowledge worker in this economy involves knowledge _exchange_. And that best happens in a work setting.

Kudos to Marissa Mayer for bucking the work-from-home meme and standing up for being present.