Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The death of telecommuting at Yahoo! and what message it sends

I tweeted this on Sunday afternoon:
So I note that Marissa Mayer has decreed there will be no more telecommuting / cloud working at home for Yahoos. That's GREAT news for the many women and men employed there who rely on working partially at home to make care responsibilities and work integratable, isn't it?
Mayer has reportedly made her decision based partly on an analysis of how often at-home workers log into the central Yahoo! system (the answer, apparently, is "not often enough") . There's also been talk about the beneficial effect of bringing people together in a casual / in office connection that apparently sparks creativity and innovation.

Unlike lots of others things that I note, comment upon on Twitter and then move on from, this one has continued to nag at me ever since. So I thought it was worth a post unpacking exactly what I find problematic about Mayer's edict, because there are several layers to my unease about it.

The first thing that needs to be said is that I understand that Yahoo! is a for-profit business and when businesses lose ground in terms of making money, hard decisions often need to be made to get them back into a profitable trend. I realise, and I'm saying this pre-emptively, that businesses are not charities, and do not owe workers wages and conditions over and above the legally mandated minimums and what the market, at any given time, will bear.

With that genuflect to market theory out of the way, let me elaborate the ways in which I think Mayer's decision is nonetheless not only bad business, but also bad for community and bad for society - the society of which every business, like it or not, is a part, and relies upon to exist.

1. I think Mayer is right in supposing that connection and collaboration (sometimes) build creative solutions, but quite wrong - and, frankly, old-fashioned - in the implication that connections can only "really" happen when people physically are present with each other. I say this as a person who has worked anywhere from primarily to exclusively at home since 2005 - for over 5 of those years as a public servant, within a structure (the state government) somewhat analogous to Yahoo! in terms of size and scope.

In these days of multiple connectivities, people make their connections and build their teams in a multitude of ways. Physical proximity in a workplace setting can promote one kind of connection, but it often destroys others. Being "at work" doesn't promote purposive team building in the way that good at-home workers do it. We seek out and make our own teams based on what we need to achieve rather than organisational structure, and develop the best ways to communicate and collaborate with the team as we find it.

Not to mention that the connections that people need to feed creativity and grow ideas are often found in unlikely places - parents bonding at the kids' gymnastics classes, people on public transport together, sports teammates, social media contacts debating the pros and cons of new technology. I mention all of these advisedly, as every one of them has given rise to work solutions and intuitive leaps within my own experience - sometimes, the sideways glance was exactly what was needed to crack the hardest problems.

2. It seems that Mayer is pushing for or advocating a mindset in which the Company is the most important thing in everyone's life. She says she wants to build a healthy workplace culture, but what she is actually saying with this move is that the culture she wants is one where people's personal obligations and priorities must take a back seat to their commitment to being a Yahoo! employee.

Let's be clear here - she's no longer talking in terms of buying people's time and skill, which is what a fair bargain of employment is about. She believes she is buying, and has the right to buy, their loyalty, their commitment, and their obligation to deprioritise other areas of their lives in order to be a company player.

I probably don't need to spell out how detrimental such an expectation is to society as a whole, in an era when any sense of noblesse oblige that companies may have had in the past to their employees is laughably, permanently, gone. Despite what Mayer and others want to say, WORK IS NOT LIFE and WORK IS NOT HOME. Employers who demand that employees strip-mine their own lives for fuel to feed the company engine are asking for more than they are buying with their dollars, and employees know it.

3. This move smells deeply, deeply cynical to me. It's been suggested by more than one commentator that Mayer might have decided to do this in the expectation that some of those who currently rely of flexibility and telecommuting to work will therefore leave, and that this may be a way to thin out the numbers of a struggling company without a scare-the-horses measure like actual redundancies.

This may or may not be true, but whatever the case, it is hard to swallow the line that the backlash from both within and without Yahoo! was somehow unexpected or shocking. When people have a benefit of any kind and you take it away summarily for vague reasons, it feels like a headkicking, and not, frankly, the sort of thing that is likely to actually foster lots of happy, fizzy creativity and caring and sharing. It reads more like a warning - and a punishment. Work, worker bees! WORK!

4. Forcing people into old-school big-office work styles runs counter to global trends and has negative sociological, infrastructural and environmental effects. The US Federal Government knows this - that's what its Mobility Strategy, to allow government employees to work remotely (including at home) is all about. The Australian Government is open in its expectation that at least 12% of its workforce will be telecommuting within 5 years. Telecommuting is on the rise everywhere, and while studies vary in their assessment of its effectiveness, there is not much argument with the reality that less centralisation of workplaces cuts down on traffic congestion, commuting stress, and "dead" commute time.

5. Like it or not, this is another very real underlining of the idea that people who are carers or have community obligations do not belong in the paid work world, or only in the most tangential of ways. That such people are often (although not always) women with young children is probably not Mayer's direct intention, but how can you argue with the reality of the result? Women who have young children and no private fortune to, say, hire multiple nannies or build a nursery for their own child down the hall from their office (oh yes she did) are being asked to choose one role or the other in the brave new world of Yahoo! - you can be a carer, OK, OR you can be a worker, but you can't be both, because the flexibility that would have made all the difference is not available to you anymore.

Look, working at home when you have young children? It's not easy. It's not for everyone. It has challenges aplenty. But for many women - I'm one of them - the chance to telework when my children were tiny equalled the chance to work at all while parenting. It meant not giving up my career altogether, and losing so much ground that I would never have made it back. For me, leaving my children fulltime when they were preschool aged was never an option, and I don't think I'm alone in this. Had I been at Yahoo! and this edict in place when I had my firstborn, I would have left my job.

So, Marissa Mayer? You might be trying to shed staff, or you might think teleworkers are slackers; you might think people need water cooler chitchat to be creative, or you might be trying to pull a rabbit out of your hat to steady a clunky old sinking ship. But I think what you're really doing is applying old solutions to big problems, not thinking creatively enough yourself about how to make the future work for Yahoo! and let it fly. And along the way, you're selling some pretty important principles - and a fair few people - for the unlikely possibility of a extra buck or two.


  1. seems to me a better solution would be to monitor the hours people are logged in and working (can't be that hard?) and set a minimum, if those aren't being met, if you can't do your job from home, you lose the privilege. I'd bet most people could manage the balance, but I am sure there'd be plenty of people taking the piss, too, and "working" (read: NOT WORKING) from home. It's a very big generalisation to make that ALL telecommunters are slackers. Perhaps she IS trying to get people to leave on their own accord. It's a shame to see this perk go from a big company. I wish more companies were as flexible as allowing telecommuting, but this move won't help with that. I think companies are missing out on great people by now allowing it. Same goes for job share. People need more flexibility these days, especially those at home caring for kids or with kids in school. Great post. -Aroha (#teamIBOT)

  2. I'm reading Tim Ferriss' "4 hour workweek" at the moment (the NY Times Best Seller, in which he advocates detailed plots to convince the boss into allowing work-from-home...specifically so the worker can work far less hours while also doing lifestyle pursuits like extended travel.)

    I'm not sure books like this have helped convince big companies of the merits of encouraging more off-site workers!