Wednesday March 6, 2013

Yahoo!'s WFH Edict And Ensuing Kerfuffle

Yahoo! recently decided to bring its "free range" (i.e., remote working) employees into the office. Much of the Net has an opinion on this edict. This is mine.

Disclaimer: I worked at Yahoo from June 2006 - Nov 2011. I left before Marissa Mayer came on board. I have a vested interest in the future of telecommuting in general and the policy at Yahoo! in particular (I have friends there who work/ed remotely.) You can probably guess how I feel about this policy from my use of the word "edict". :-)

As recently as a day before the news hit the fan, I still considered the possibility of going back to Yahoo!. Now? No.

How it Started

The fireworks started when Yahoo!'s head of HR sent a memo to everyone at the company:

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.

Beginning in June, we're asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn't just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

But Wait! There's More!

Since that surfaced, Yahoo! has refused to make any official statement. Unofficial statements, however, have clouded the issue substantially.

Yahoo has a huge number of people of who work remotely - people who just never come in. Many of these people "weren't productive," says this source. "A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo."

-- an anonymous "source" quoted by sfgate.com

and this from the same unnamed source:

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.

Wow. If true, that's nasty.

Then there are the "Top sources [who] told [Kara Swisher] that Mayer has been particularly irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty by 5 pm" (All Things D).

In reality, unless things have changed drastically since I left, Yahoo! has a parking scarcity problem. At one building, parking places were difficult to find by 9:30. At another (with more engineers), spaces were scarce by 10:30. And "quick to empty by 5" wasn't something I saw either. By 6 perhaps. Which says, to me, that people were putting in 8 hour days in the office and who knows how many hours at home in the evening.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in his article in the Daily Herald, "This is a classic bad-manager misconception -- that a full parking lot means people are getting stuff done.". (He says a lot more; you should read the article.)

No, Really, It's Not What You Think

Obviously Yahoo! did not expect the ensuing backlash and they seem to be backpedaling... somewhat. A more recent article in the NYT, titled "Yahoo Says New Policy Is Meant to Raise Morale", quotes anonymous employees as reporting that their "concerns have been eased by managers who assured them that the real targets of Yahoo's memo were the approximately 200 employees who work from home full time."

One manager said he told his employees, "Be here when you can. Use your best judgment. But if you have to stay home for the cable guy or because your kid is sick, do it."

Wait. Isn't that exactly what the original memo said? In almost the exact same words, except for the sick kid?

What isn't being addressed here... the Elephant in the Room ... are all of the people caught in the middle. The people who have had regular telecommuting arrangements for 1, 2, or 3 days a week. I don't know how many people worked from home regularly but not full time. I'd bet it was more than 200. I do know that in my group of 30 or so service engineers, nearly everyone worked from home at least one day a week.

The "real targets" of the memo may be the 200 or so employees who work remotely full time (less than 2% of the total workforce). But the clear implication of the memo is that regular telecommuting arrangements must end for everyone. Employees had better "exercise judgement" to work from home occasionally.

So... why the requirement for "butts in chairs in the office"? It's not a productivity issue. Plenty of studies show that remote productivity can be as good or better than in-office productivity. And, if it's true that some of the full-time remote workers "weren't productive" or "hid", there's a simple, well-known solution for managing productivity issues.

Communication and Collaboration

So, what's the reason? Looking back at the original memo, we see:

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.

A lot of people disagree with this (as do I). Communication and collaboration are important, but that doesn't automatically lead to the conclusion "we need to be working side-by-side". Many companies and teams have learned that communication and collaboration can, and do, occur among remote workers world wide.

In fact, Yahoo! itself is a global corporation, with teams that span the globe. Employees in Bangalore, Santa Monica, and Dallas aren't being told to be present in Sunnyvale. Why is it bad for an employee to work 3 days a week from her home, 40 miles from headquarters, but OK for another employee to work 1700 miles away 5 days a week, for months at a time? The second employee may be sitting in an official Yahoo! office, but if his team members and/or manager are not physically co-located... how does this meet the "collaboration" requirements given in the memo?

The Effects of Hierarchy

Finally, there's a question that no one else seems to have raised. Whether or not it's true that "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings", what changes will be put into place to ensure that any of those decisions and insights will percolate up to the levels that are able to act on them?

Yahoo! is a strongly hierarchical company. Between the employees on the ground -- the engineers, project managers, QA folks, service engineers, writers, and others who actually do the work -- and the CEO, there are at least eight layers of management.

In most companies where I've worked, the engineers and other "individual contributors" are told what to build. Many times, they're told how to build it, what the basic interface should look like, and what kind of customers to write for. Major product planning is not, generally, done at the "individual contributor" level.

Very few companies operate like Toyota, where everyone is strongly encouraged to make suggestions. Certainly, Yahoo! does not. During my five-year tenure, I saw nothing to indicate that employee ideas were welcomed, let alone solicited or acted upon.

Summing Up

Let's paraphrase some things that have been said, adding commentary:

  1. "Communication and Collaboration are important."
    Physical proximity can lead to (but does not guarantee) communication or collaboration.

  2. "We're asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices"
    No...
    "the real targets of Yahoo's memo were the approximately 200 employees who work from home full time"
    Seriously? Get your story straight.

  3. "It's OK to work from home occasionally, but use your best judgement in the spirit of collaboration."
    Whatever that really means.

  4. "Some people who worked from home weren't productive."
    This is a management problem. It's a good bet that some people in the office weren't productive either. It's also a good bet that bringing people into the office will not increase productivity. The productivity issue is a red herring.

  5. "Some remote workers won't want to start coming into the office and so they will quit. It's a layoff that's not a layoff!"
    No comment.

  6. "Mayer has been particularly irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty by 5 pm"
    Counting cars in the parking lot is not an accurate way to determine who is working or how productive they are.

  7. Counting hours in the office is not an accurate way to determine productivity either. Also, more hours are not better hours. (Research has shown that long days and weeks do not increase productivity. If the 8-hour workday doesn't make sense, the 10-12-hour workday makes even less.)

  8. Assuming that bringing everyone into the office actually does increase "best decisions and insights", will those decisions and insights ever make it up the chain? Will they ever make it into a product?

References

If you enjoy satire, the Vooza "Handcuffs" memo is a fun read. Be sure to compare it to the Yahoo! memo for best results.

Then there are the many articles and blog postings. Comments too. Here's a sample (yes, I've been obsessing over this a bit):

Yahoo!'s WFH Edict And Ensuing Kerfuffle ( in category World of Work ) - posted at Wed, 06 Mar, 22:09 Pacific | «e»


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