Flexible Work Ban: Yahoo! the ‘modern stone age family’

March 13, 2013 by  

Yahoo Cave Man - No Telework Marissa MayerYou may have heard in the news this past week about Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer and her no work-at-home policy. She helped usher Yahoo back into the stone age when they made it clear that any Yahoo employee that currently works from home has until June to report to an office to work or look for work elsewhere.

According to an internal memo Yahoo believes:

“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. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

While I agree it’s helpful to work side-by-side with coworkers, this decision reaks of the knee-jerk, backward, “can’t do” thinking I see so many companies suffer from. They’re struggling with virtual teamwork and remote collaboration so they think they should just scrap the whole thing.

As a consultant helping companies make the shift to The Anywhere Office®, I can tell you first hand that virtual teams can be MORE effective and productive than co-located teams when instituted  properly, and that “speed and quality” can be unsurpassed. But it doesn’t happen by accident; it requires a strategy and training.

When I consult with companies I walk them through a process to take a step back and define team and communication guideline. We also take a look at what kind of tools they have in place already, to determine if they are the right tools, and if they are being thoughtfully applied. Even these simple exercises have helped teams transform into lean, mean collaborating machines.

The punchline of the Yahoo situation is that Ms. Mayer talks about wanting the company to be the “best place to work,”  but in the same breathe she announces they are taking away the ability to have a flexible work agreement. Workplace flexibility is highly valued by today’s smart young professionals; closing the door on it at Yahoo will ensure the best and brightest will look for work elsewhere. And don’t even get me started on the litany of other benefits virtual work provides:  increased productivity, cost savings, environmental benefits,  disaster preparedness….

I should be thanking Yahoo’s new CEO

In an interesting article I read in Fast Company they explained why Marissa Mayer and Yahoo actually did us a big favor:

“Over the years, I’ve seen many leaders and organizations follow the same path even though employees value the ability to work remotely, and there’s a solid argument that telework actually benefits the business.The difference is that those leaders don’t have a high profile and aren’t under the same public scrutiny as Mayer; therefore, their decisions go unnoticed and unchallenged. Rather than singling out and criticizing Mayer, we should thank her for raising the veil. Yahoo’s decision gives us the opportunity to expose and challenge the misguided, faulty reasoning many leaders follow when they decide to revoke their support for flexible work.”

That’s a very valid point and I’m delighted that the decision has generated so much discussion about telework, remote collaboration, and virtual leadership. The thing that really strikes me is Mayer’s claim they need to have everyone in the same physical location to communicate and collaborate effectively – this coming from a technology leader that produces a number of tools (such as mail, calendar,Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo Groups, etc.) that are designed to help people work together regardless of time or distance!

It’s all virtual collaboration

What Yahoo, and so many companies, fail to realize is that despite having everyone in the same location – people will still continue to communicate and collaborate virtually. Modern business has evolved beyond working in a traditional workplace at set hours: every day people are working from virtual offices, client sites, home offices, coffee shops, airports, hotels, and any number of remote workplaces. Even if it’s not YOUR team that’s dispersed, you are likely working with clients, vendors, consultants, and outsourced departments who are are not co-located.

Beyond that, even when people ARE under the same roof they’ll still be communicating and collaborating virtually, as David Rolston points out in an excellent article on his Working Nowwhere blog:

A huge percentage of collaboration is now virtual, even for people who share the same office building. The Yahoo folk may be successful in “finding an office” but even if they do the majority of their interaction with other employees will be virtual. Employees today often use electronic communication to interact – whether it’s email, Yammer, Skype, Lync, blogs, forums, Sharepoint, Webex or any other application. Most importantly, they often use electronic communications to interact with people in the same room, much less the same building.

In my experience, if more than 90 feet separate two employees they are more likely to use communication technology than to interact face-to-face the majority of the time. No matter where you’re located – onsite or off – collaboration will most likely happen the same way. With affordable video conferencing and web meeting services, the “we’re not in the same place we can’t be a close knit team and collaborate effectively” excuse just doesn’t hold weight any more. All the tech you would ever need to overcome time and distance challenges already exists.

The true challenge is a shift in management perspective

The challenge isn’t the technology, it’s learning to make the shift to managing employees that are not on-site. Yahoo said that many of it’s remote workers weren’t productive. They claimed, ” …a lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.”

That’s ridiculous. This has nothing to do with remote working and more to do with a failure to teach your people how to manage a distributed workforce. A manager needs to know how to lead people and deal with productivity challenges – whether those people are on site or remote. To be successful a company needs to hire talented people who want to do good work, give them the tools they need, and create an atmosphere of trust and accountability.

As Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group said in his reaction to the Yahoo news:

“To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision . . . If you provide the right technology to keep in touch, maintain regular communication and get the right balance between remote and office working, people will be motivated to work responsibly, quickly and with high quality.”

Too many companies, like Yahoo, fail to provide training for their managers and then are surprised when they struggle with virtual teamwork. Training and strategy are absolutely fundamental to embracing The Anywhere Office work or organizational style.

In the spirit of  “show em don’t tell em,” instead of just criticizing I made Marissa Mayer and Yahoo a genuine offer: I sent her a message on twitter inviting all of Yahoo’s managers to attend my Art of Virtual Leadership on-demand workshop for free.

The workshop contains both strategies and concrete tips to overcome the obstacles of communicating, supervising, collaborating, and team-building across time and distance. So come on Marissa – lets not take Yahoo back in time, my offer stands.

What do you think of Yahoo’s decision and how they are handling this?  Have you had similar experiences at your own company?  Please leave a comment and join the discussion.

  • Nice take on things, Phil. I’m completely with you that people in an office still need to do things virtually. Putting them all under one roof in no way obviates the need to collaborate effectively through “impersonal” means.

    • Thanks Phil – I had a feeling you would see it the same way. Collaboration can be very rich and personal virtually if done right!

  • Marjorie

    I had a very same experience with my non-bpo superior. We took him into our bpo company to create processes and he takes everybody back in the stone age so he can manage effectively…but still unsuccessful. You need to embrace technology especially if you are in this type of an industry. You cannot avoid it anymore, no matter how technologically challenged you are.

    • So true Marjorie – thanks for sharing your experience. Technology has gotten more affordable and easier to adopt so it really shouldn’t be the stumbling block it once was to successful virtual teamwork.

  • Judy Jackson

    Thanks for sharing this post. Point well made! -http://www.waterblast.pro/

  • Erik Cooper

    Good article Phil, not every organization can implement it correctly. Just like with any strategy at all. Remote work is normally an improvement in most instances with the right foundation in place.