Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marissa Mayer's Attack on Telecommuting

Telecommuting took a big hit this week when Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, banned the perk, telling her employees that they had to work in the office or find employment elsewhere.  Yikes!  Naturally, people are all up in arms over this.

Her rationale seems sound.  To quote her:
“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.”

It’s hard to argue that fact.  People who work from home are physically disconnected from the rest of the workforce.  Sure, with the right technology, someone can pick up a phone and dial someone else’s extension, send an email, etc.  But people never want to bother each other, and I’ll bet that most people feel that calling someone working from home is akin to calling them “at home,” meaning calling them during a time in which they would prefer to not be disturbed.

And really, telecommuting can be abused far too easily under lax supervision.  As an IT professional, I have seen with my very eyes people’s productivity levels drop.  Someone working from home typically has to remotely connect to the office’s network, and those connections appear on dashboards and reports that any network administrator readily views.  So when there is no network activity from a telecommuter for over a half hour or forty-five minutes, what exactly is that person doing?  That’s where a supervisor has to be diligent, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen enough—or perhaps even at all.

Most people would love to have a job where they could telecommute, even if it were only a couple of days a week.  Both of my siblings telecommute a few days per week with their respective jobs—and both are VERY HARD WORKERS.  My wife has on-call hours where she telecommutes a few times a month.  Technology is a wonderful thing in that regard.  You have people working from home, using their own electricity and water and toilet paper and whatnot.  Morale is improved.  Your employees can work in their pajamas or birthday suit if they so desired.  It really is a great perk from an employee perspective.

But I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer’s decision.  Yahoo is a company that is struggling, and sometimes you have to take away some of the perks as a kick in the pants to your employees—kind of like a guy my dad once knew who, working as the VP of Facilities and Maintenance, literally kicked his underling in the pants (shin) with a steel-toed boot.  That guy was promptly fired, thankfully, but sometimes employees need a metaphoric kick like that.  If you want your employees to work harder, motivate them—either by giving rewards for good behavior or punishing them for bad.

As I said, I can’t wholly disagree with Marissa Mayer, but I am troubled by her decision a little.  In my mind, if your employees aren’t being productive enough, that’s not an employee problem.  That’s a management problem.  Good employees will work hard, collaborate, and communicate whether they are working from home or not.  Not-so-good employees will find ways to abuse perks like telecommuting.  Management should be able to tell the difference between the two and be able to weed out the bad ones--or at the very least apply performance standards that would allow the best employees to have the best perks.

Blanket rules like banning telecommuting can sometimes do more harm than good.  Yes, you are being firm in what you want to see happen with the company, and yes you are delivering a message.  But sometimes your good employees will interpret that message the wrong way.  And chances are, many good employees at Yahoo have been looking or have found employment elsewhere already.  The telecommuting ban may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for them.

Allowing employees to telecommute while maintaining adequate if not outstanding levels of productivity is a matter of great supervision and great technology.  If a company is lacking in one or the other, problems will abound.  From my perspective, Yahoo is a one-dimensional company that is lacking in creativity.  When you look at Microsoft and Google and how they seem to have their hands in everything from operating systems, browsers, search engines, phones and devices, cloud services, etc., it’s no wonder those companies are flourishing.  I use Yahoo mail for a mostly junk email account.  That’s it.  And if they aren’t creating the best technology, it makes me really wonder if they are using it.

Sorry Marissa, but your problem isn’t with your workers telecommuting.  Your problem is that your company is as blasé and yesterday as Netscape and AOL.

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