Yahoo's plan to bring all work-at-home employees back to the office starting in June was not meant to be a statement on the viability of telecommuting, but that's what happened. Now a company that's trying to pick itself up off of the ground is smack dab in the media spotlight, even though company insiders say that this move was something Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer telegraphed almost from Day One of her taking the helm at Yahoo. But is this the right move for Yahoo?
Let's get this out of the way up front: this is a story because a lot of people in the technology industry, which has a higher-than-average share of work-at-home bodies, are freaking out. The idea that a long-held industry practice enabling them to work outside the workplace and gain some measure of flexibility in their professional-personal balance is about to regress back to the 1980s is pretty damn alarming.
That was certainly my initial reaction. Having worked from my Indiana-based home office for almost 15 years for various employers and clients in the media and technology sectors, I can unequivocally say that there would be no way I could do what I do and still live in my native state without the Internet and telecommuting policies. I have turned down job offers from companies that would not budge on office workplace requirements. I have kids in college, high school, and middle school. Relocating, and uprooting my younger kids, is not something I want to do unless there's no other option.
Watching the reaction to Yahoo's leaked HR memo that was initially reported by AllThingsD, I can tell I am not alone.
Probably caught off-guard by the visceral reaction, Yahoo declined to make any statements about the new policy until just yesterday afternoon, telling the media, "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now."
Fair enough. Mayer and her team are trying to pull Yahoo together and get the company back on track. I would imagine, given the revolving door of CEOs at the company, that she doesn't feel like there's a lot of time, so worrying about the broader impact on telecommuting is the last thing on their minds.
But even if Yahoo is not trying to start an industry trend, the question still remains, if their plan isn't meant to be a plan for everyone, is it still the right plan for Yahoo?
A Long Time Coming
Sources within Yahoo have told me that the new policy was actually not that new at all. The possibility of curtailing or even halting work-at-home policies was discussed last fall.
"She's made it clear right from the get-go that this is something she wanted to do," one staffer said, referring to Mayer's plan to reduce telecommuting practices within Yahoo.
Sources close to the situation spoke anonymously, as they are not allowed to discuss internal Yahoo matters.
Indeed, soon after Mayer came on board as president and CEO of Yahoo in July 2012, work from home on Fridays was strongly discouraged, with some teams required to implement mandatory meetings within Yahoo's office late in the day on Fridays.
So, if this change was a long time coming, was the reaction within Yahoo more sanguine as some media reports seemed to indicate?
"People are pissed off about it," one source related. "But, they know you have to go along if you want to work at Yahoo."
There's been a lot of speculation that Mayer may be revisiting her Google roots, implementing policies that encourage working from the office, just as Google does. But sources I spoke with didn't care to speculate about this.
A Step Too Far?
Even as Yahoo employees are struggling with this change in policy, some are wondering if such a drastic move was even warranted. Some internal sources commented that Yahoo might have tried to better manage remote workers.
While nearly everyone in the company relies on the Yahoo Messenger client for text-based chats and messaging, one source confided that they observe little to no use of the software's video chat functionality within the halls of Yahoo's offices. Nor are outside videoconferencing tools like Skype or GoToMeeting actively employed.
While videoconferencing is not an exact substitute for in-person meetings, it would seem to be an effective interim step to try when concerns about productivity arise. Especially when Yahoo already has the tool to perform such meetings in place.
This could have been a question of time. It is possible videoconferencing and other managerial procedures to handle a mobile workforce were considered, and rejected because of the pressures of delivering a better bottom line fast.
There is also the very tangible benefit of pulling together in a crisis. By physically coming closer, the human social connections will kick in even further and (hopefully) deliver the innovation and productivity Mayer and her team are seeking.
If anything, Mayer's decision is not so much a comment on telecommuting as a clear signal that Yahoo sees the months ahead as put-up-or-shut-up time. The leaked memo may have created a meta-discussion right now, but the bigger pain in the butt for Yahoo has to be that all of this media attention will have investors and partners alike watching the company even more intensely to see if Mayer and the work-in-office plan will work.
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