Image via Thomas Hawk

By now you might have heard about Marissa Mayer’s controversial move to ban all remote work at Yahoo! Inc and insist that work from home employees report to the office beginning June 2013.


The BackStory

According to a leaked internal memo sent out to Yahoo! employees, their HR Manager Jackie Reses, presumably under Mayer’s directive, said:

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Apparently this decision affects not just those working from home full time (such as CSR reps), but those who took flexi time options 1-2 times a week. Also Yahoo! has employees working from home in all divisions – from engineering to writing to customer service – and so multiple departments and people at various levels are going to be affected.


The Media Outcry

The Yahoo! decision has everyone from journalists to working parents up in arms. Most people are touting the benefits of working from home, citing statistics and reasons for why work-from-home (WFH) is the future of work. Others are citing the hypocrisy inherent in Mayer’s decision. From not announcing the change herself to having a fully furnished nursery in her office, critics are fuming at Mayer’s double standards. Working parents see Mayer as being unreasonable, while executives see her as being backward.

There are also a few voices out there who support Mayer’s decision. Mostly these groups are people who want to give Mayer the benefit of the doubt and proclaim that it can’t have been an easy decision for her to make. Then there are other proponents who are against working from home entirely. Still more proponents argue that Mayer is not dumb – she didn’t achieve the status and position that she did at Google without being super smart, so it’s not fair to second guess her decisions and motives. She presumably has a mountain of data and insight to support her decision.

Even heavyweights such as Donald Trump (in support of) and Richard Branson (against) have weighed in with their take on Mayer’s decision.


Behind the Scenes at Yahoo!

My knee-jerk reaction was outrage at Mayer’s decision, along with many other people. Then I started wondering why a smart woman like Mayer might have come to this conclusion. And now as reports come in of gross levels of unproductivity at Yahoo!, I’m further leaning towards the view that this was a really bad move.

Let’s consider some reasons suggested by a Yahoo! source at Business Insider about why Mayer might have made this decision:

Reason #1: “Yahoo! has a huge number of people of who work remotely – people who just never come in. Many of these people “weren’t productive’”.

First up, if Yahoo! has a huge remote workforce, all the more reason for management to evaluate who among this workforce is abusing the WFH privileges and quietly siphon them out. No PR fiasco; in fact just praise for weeding out unproductive workers and making the company leaner and cutting costs.

Reason #2: “A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo!. These people aren’t just Yahoo! customer support reps. They’re in all divisions, from marketing to engineering.”

Seriously? In the Internet age, where it’s so easy to have checks on remote employees, why would this even be an issue? How can employees hide? Don’t they have managers to report to? Work to complete? Does nobody at Yahoo! check to see if work assigned is work completed? This holds true for people in all affected departments – from CSR to marketing to engineering.

Reason #3: “Mayer is happy to give Yahoo! employees standard Silicon Valley benefits like free food and free smartphones. But our source says the kinds of work-from-home arrangements popular at Yahoo! were not common to other Valley companies like Google or Facebook. This is a collaborative business.”

Just because those other perks are Valley constants doesn’t mean Yahoo! has to give them. Yahoo! is in trouble – big financial trouble. It is on the brink of being irrelevant in the tech era and they’re worried about competing on perks with financially successful giants like Google and Facebook?

And while previous across the board WFH agreements might not have been well-advised, there’s no need to do something that will decrease morale when you are trying not just to hold on to your top talent but also attract the smartest new grads entering the tech industry for whom work-life flexibility is amongst the top job concerns.

And finally this gem:

Reason #4: “Mayer saw another side-benefit to making this move. She knows that some remote workers won’t want to start coming into the office and so they will quit. That helps Yahoo!, which needs to cut costs. It’s a layoff that’s not a layoff. This is about Mayer carefully getting to problems created by Yahoo!’s huge, bloated infrastructure. The company got fat and lazy over the past 15 years, and this is Mayer getting it into fighting shape.”

So basically what she wants is for unproductive workers to come to the office and continue working for Yahoo! or willingly resign? Hell, if this were me, I’d fire their asses! In business you have to realize unproductive people will always be unproductive people. At most they may turn into toe-the-line folks when you force them to get their behinds in a chair in the office. But why would anyone want such unproductive people in the office – remote or not – anyways?


The Real Issues Facing Yahoo!

The big picture, as I see it, is that there appear to be three main problems with Yahoo!’s staffing issue.

First, unproductive, lazy workers who don’t complete their work on time, deserve to have their WFH privilege taken away. But not at the cost of those who genuinely are more productive at home and can show the results to prove it.

As a WAHM, I can attest to the fact that working from home requires intense amounts of discipline. Not everyone is cut out for it. To be a successful work from home superstar, you need to have tons of discipline, motivation, tenacity, focus and some introspective tendencies.

If you are the sort of person who needs a manager over your head at all times to get anything done, then working from home might make you unproductive, distracted, isolated, unfocused and ultimately worthless.

Yahoo!’s management needs to identify employees who are suited to working from home while also identifying work that is suitable to be done from home. Then review these employees on a case by case basis.

Second, those managers who were supervising unproductive remote workers need to be sacked as well for not managing. Their entire job description is to ensure work gets done by the people appointed to do so. If they are not doing their job, there is no reason to coddle them by allowing them to manage those same unproductive remote workers in-house. Doing so will just propagate the issue of bad management.

Yahoo!’s managers need to be held accountable for the remote workforce under them. And again those managers who are found to having (knowingly or unknowingly) allowed the WFH farce to continue need to be taken to task and summarily fired, again saving the company from unnecessary costs and low performing employees.

Third, a lot of those remote workers are being criticized for working on their start-ups and side projects. This to me suggests that at least some of these particular remote workers are creative, entrepreneurial and innovative.

What if Mayer were to actually embrace this creative workforce and allow them to have office time to focus on their own personal projects? It’s not an unheard of concept. In fact the company famous for doing this is Google itself – Mayer’s former employer. Google allows ~20% of office time to be spent on individual creative pursuits which often leads to breakthroughs in innovation. And isn’t innovation precisely what Yahoo! is lacking?


I am not in Marissa Mayer’s shoes. I don’t have access to the insights she does. But for some reason it is hard to shake the feeling that this blanket ban on remote work is just a symptom of much bigger problems within Yahoo!. And taking these short term measures which harm Mayer’s own stellar reputation, disappoint working parents all over the world and demoralize Yahoo!’s existing workforce seems excessive and arbitrary, especially when there may be other avenues open to her.