Learning to trust is one of leadership’s most difficult tasks

cube farm

(Note: Apologies in advance to any other FOT’ers that want to take on this topic – I’d say go ahead, there are bound to be lots of conflicting opinions, and mine are not any smarter than anyone else’s).

From time to time there are workplace related news items that rise to the level of ‘HR/Talent required blog fodder’, and the recent announcement from Yahoo that effective in June they are eliminating working from home (or telework or flexible working arrangements -call it what you like), and will begin requiring that all employees work out of a company location. Estimates vary, but reports have indicated this will affect about 800 – 1,000 employees out of a total of around 12,000 Yahoos. 

From the details of the actual policy change letter penned by Yahoo’s Chief HR officer Jackie Reses, (but being interpreted as an edict directly from the new CEO Marissa Meyer for HR to carry out), the change is being explained as a move to increase collaboration and communication; and also to improve speed and quality.  Here is the important paragraph of the leaked internal email from Ms. Reses to the Yahoo staff: (courtesy of AllThingsD)

“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. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

The memo continues on to explain the next steps, (essentially if you are one of the remote workers you need to figure out pretty fast how to be ‘un-remote’), and how the rest of the employees shouldn’t worry if they have to spend the odd morning at home waiting for the ‘cable guy’, just make sure you keep in in check – in the spirit of collaboration that is.

As you’d probably expect most of the reaction to Yahoo’s decision to end remote working arrangements has been met disapprovingly across the web.  The negative reactions to the policy change are all pretty much the same, and fall into the same few broad arguments:

1. The nature of work is changing, and people’s personal lives and work lives are no longer as clearly delineated as in the past. For many, remote work makes managing all of life’s demands much easier.

2. People are (and some studies have shown), more productive, actually work more hours, and are happier overall if they can work remotely

3. The best talent might not be able to ‘physically be together’ in an office – they live nowhere near a company location, or they have other personal reasons that make traditional office work not possible or practical.

4. An assortment of practical things – reduced real estate and facilities costs, less consumption of gas, less time (mostly unproductive and highly frustrating time) spent commuting, etc.

5. A violation of some kind of implied ‘deal’ with these remote workers. The argument is many probably would not have taken the job at Yahoo without the remote work arrangement, and now they’ve been betrayed.

To be fair, there is also some support for this policy change too, much of it falling into these buckets:

1. Yahoo is a mess, the Board hired Meyer to turn things around and this is just a part of that process. Lots of folks think Yahoo needs to continue to reduce headcount anyway.

2. Software development and new product creation are by nature highly collaborative processes, neither work as well when teams are not co-located

3. (this is the one I think you see the most, and is most depressing). No one working from home is really ‘working’, they are shuttling kids around to school or the doctor, watching TV, or otherwise goofing off. Work is work and home is home. Shut up and get your butt to the office or find another job.

No matter where you come down on the opinion spectrum on this policy change, the possibility that it will resonate more widely, and be adopted by more organizations as a sensible and practical business decision is what seems to have many commentators in a tizzy. For me, the possibility that the example set by a new and young CEO in a very visible and high-tech company, (admittedly one that has seen better days. I email back and forth with about 1,000 people, I can think of exactly ONE that uses a Yahoo Mail account), will create some kind of massive ‘everybody at their desks’ movement across many industries seems, well pardon the pun – remote.

I’ll end this (too long) piece by throwing it out to you FOT Nation to share your comments and thoughts about Yahoo’s decision to end remote work, and even the future of remote work in general.

Is Yahoo making a bad decision?

If you were CEO, would you encourage or at least permit remote work?

Do you work remotely now?

I will even get you started with my initial thought – CEO Meyer must think that Yahoo is so poor at managing for performance that the only way she can try to exert some control is to walk the halls or cube farms or whatever they have there – and look upon a sea of heads ‘physically being together’.

What say you?

FOT Background Check

Steve Boese
Steve Boese is fondly known to many as the HR Technology blogger. By day, he is the Co-Chair of Human Resource Executive's HR Technology Conference. He is also a former Director of Talent Management Strategy at Oracle and an HR Technology instructor. Steve can also be found hosting the HR Happy Hour Show and Podcast … you know, where a bunch of HR pros get together and call in to talk about HR stuff. Sounds like an SNL skit, we know. But when you have Dave Ulrich, the grandfather of HR as show guests, well, I guess you’re doing something right.  Talk to Steve via emailLinkedInTwitter or Facebook.

12 Comments

  1. LeiLani says:

    Wow, bears! Opinion a la me…the mandate goes against the very thing that Yahoo! is. Everyone at their desks? Really?! I’d think they’d find a more high-tech solution to foster collaboration and communication than chaining people to their desks. Sad…just sad.

    Reply
  2. Chris says:

    Yikes…this decision will validate the dinosaur brains at my company who will not even discuss remote work arrangements. (Unofficially they thrive. ) YES I WORK REMOTELY. I negotiated one remote work day when I joined the company 10 years ago with a progressive VP who has since resigned. I have a 64-mile round trip commute, so this saves me 2-1/2 hours of commuting. I typically start at 7 and often still find myself in the saddle at 5. At work, I would be arriving at 8:45 and leaving at 6:15. No one knows I’m not physically there as most of my “clients” are in other states and countries. YAHOO IS MAKING A BAD DECISION. You called it in your title for this post: it’s a sad commentary on trust. IF I WERE CEO, I WOULD ENCOURAGE AND PERMIT REMOTE WORK ARRANGEMENTS — WITH GUIDELINES. Sales people have successfully managed remote work for eons. It’s all about setting expectations and measuring progress. I suspect word of this new mandate was not met with yahoos!

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  3. Darcy says:

    I think much of this comes down to sheer laziness. It’s “easier” to manage someone’s time at their desk than it is to manage their production. But I would argue that managing production is far more valuable. I know people who never work remotely and sit on Facebook much of the day. I also know people who “work” remotely and take their kids to the zoo. What really matters at the end of the day is the quality and quantity of output. If managers would truly manage that then it wouldn’t matter where work gets done and people could work where they’re most comfortable and productive.

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  4. Steve Boese
    Steve Boese says:

    Thanks all for the comments – I think you all hit on the same broad theme from different angles. The problem is almost certainly one of management that seems to have let a culture of poor performance fester, and now these remote workers are being made to pay. Certainly in any situation there were probably some of them that were truly not performing, so manage them out, not take the easy way out as it were.

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  5. Taryn Tennant says:

    I think the argument is very nuanced. I have been in companies where most were virtual and others where few to no one was virtual. One of the keys is to be sure everyone has the tools they need to replicate the informal conversations. Attracting top talent in an environment that is open to virtual team members is easier as you are not held prisoner to the 40 mile radius of an office. On the flip side I have seen how time zones and phone conversations have limited a team’s ability to move fast and furious. A pat policy against virtual workforce seems short sighted for a company looking to recover as they no doubt will lose key talent and will lose opportunities to hire some killer talent. As with any policy that is all or nothing, I think it a mistake and definitely a step backwards in the goal of being a top tech company.

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  6. Jim Fox says:

    Complex issue including: staffing, staffing costs, business continuity and infrastructure costs in addition to productivity and trust.

    Trust is a mutual issue. Does management want people in the office because it values the communal advantages or because it does not believe that people are working at home? Do people want to work from home because they can get more done or because they want to escape the eyes of their manager?

    It’s ironic that Yahoo, who we’d presume is at the forefront of electronic community building and tracking would seem to abandon them both.

    Whether it’s good or bad; it’s too early to tell, though I suspect the answer is “yes”

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  7. Amanda N says:

    Maybe they should have tried Google Hangout to increase collaboration. Oh, wait…
    Old school policies from a company stuck in the past. I should be excited there’s a young female CEO at a dot.com, but Meyer has done nothing to advance the environment for working moms (or dads). Shame on her.

    Reply
  8. Don Juanito says:

    From the NYTimes article on this “Studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm. ‘If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.’ ”

    I know everyone is talking ‘collaboration tools are great now’ and making Google Hangout jokes, but I know that if you aren’t compelled to use these as a remote worker, then many people won’t. Much Interweb chatter notes that Yahoo has much dead wood that this move will help drive out – but the question of whether we require physical proximity to drive collaboration/innovation is a fair one and is missed amidst the clamour from (I’m guessing) mostly remote workers..

    Disclaimer – I’m a remote worker when I’m not on customer sites.

    Reply
  9. Steve Boese
    Steve Boese says:

    Taryn, Jim, and Don – you all hit on really important points – these business and workplace issues are complex, and at least for me, trying to impose simple solutions can often backfire. The truth is almost certainly there to discover, but the process may be one that Yahoo feels they don’t have time for or simply isn’t worth their time.

    Amanda – you make a good point as well and one that I did not hit upon in the piece but I probably should have. Everyone sees the world through the lens of our own experience. Mayer sees herself as an incredibly successful and powerful leader who got to that place, at least in part, by working all the time. From the reports of her being displeased with a parking lot that empties at 5PM to her having a nursery built near her office so she (ostensibly) be in the office more, there has to be an element of ‘these employees need to work more like me, and we will be ok’ going on here. How much of that is driving her decisions, it is impossible to say, but it has to be there to some extent. Thanks everyone for the excellent comments.

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  10. Amanda N says:

    Thanks, Steve. I’ve seen a few additional reports from “Yahoos” that this change was needed. I am confident there are employees abusing the privilege, but applying a blanket policy like this punishes those who are engaged, productive, and collaborative. What happens if the best employees- those employees who can move Yahoo forward- decide to leave because of this change? Does Yahoo start making exceptions, or let these people go to competitors that still allow remote work? Slim down your workforce strategically, making performance-based decisions on an individual basis requires more work, but it’s the fair thing to do. Of course, pushing employees to self-select out of the company will save Yahoo in (presumably) severance and unemployment costs.
    Also, I find it interesting the memo came from HR, but HR doesn’t seem to be taking the heat for the decision. I bet this wouldn’t be the case in most companies. That says something about the perceptions of Meyer’s leadership internally and externally.

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  11. Ed Baldwin says:

    Ok, I’m willing to start the banter.

    Answering the questions, yes I believe Yahoo is making mistake. But the mistake is in execution, not principle. To demand collaboration, even face-to-face collaboration to improve business effectiveness is a reasonable ask. To presume that the only way this can occur is by having people work in offices rather than remotely is absurd. If I’m a remote worker can’t I be charged with showing my collaboration via occasional visits to offices to meet with my colleagues and utilization of web based collaboration tools? Yahoo is a technology company isn’t it?

    Two, if I was the CEO I would insist on the behavior (collaboration, team work) and attempt to measure and assess performance of all employees via the performance management process. Start working on metrics of these behaviors now, and elevate these competencies in the performance management system being utilized. Maybe even tie these behaviors to rewards if you can.

    Third, yes I work from home regularly now. But networking, relationship building and collaboration are necessary parts of success in my role so inevitably I find myself behind a windshield or in a meeting room quite often, in addition to the collaborative tech tools I utilize to stay connected to my clients, partners, etc.

    Reply
  12. Steve Boese says:

    Amanda and Ed – thanks for the comments – I think you are both hitting a key point that seems to have people up in arms so to speak, that the bluntness of the change and the execution seem to allow no room for nuance, thoughtfulness, and will not force understanding of just why results are not as desired. It is a complex issue no doubt. As this issue continues to get reported and commented on, it does seem to me that using this policy change as an unofficial reduction in force is one of the motivations. It seems that Yahoo knows that many remote workers, (full or part time), will not desire or will not be able to comply with the policy and will be let go.

    Reply

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