Marissa Mayer, Telecommuting and The Business Woman Reaction

by Tinu Abayomi-Paul on February 27, 2013

Today's latte, Yahoo!The top story I’ve been watching this week was the decision by Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, recently transplanted from Google, to end telecommuting at Yahoo by telling remote workers to come in or quit by June.

I’ve been slow to form an opinion on the matter for several reasons.

First, I know how hard it is to make difficult business decisions that affect more than just you.  You can’t always do what’s popular. And sometimes doing what you perceive to be right, or the least harmful, makes you the bad guy.

Second, I work from home a lot, and get much more done than I do in an office environment in the two companies I own now.

So I know my opinion is a biased one: remote working (mostly) works for me.

In short, I want to take my personal bias out of it, and look at the situation based on the information I have, rather than the feelings I have first. Of course, I later add human emotion back into the equation and reevaluate again because I’m a person, not a robot. As are the affected and reactive population.

In so doing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the backlash isn’t all about whether what happened was what is best for Yahoo! or not.

It’s the fear that a prominent company making this kind of policy change is a threat to American telecommuters.

In other countries, particularly in Europe, the role of work in life is embedded in the culture. Time off is often more lenient, productivity is valued above being physically present. It has been for years and a major company changing its mind is not likely to sway other business owners.

In the US, policy changes at major companies often ripple out to other companies. Big companies are sometimes the test beds for ideas like unlimited time off, email for office use, having a web site or a blog, or telecommuting. Smaller companies watch them to see if the experiment will succeed or fail.

When there is a perceived failure at a prominent company of a benefit employees want, given this climate, of course there will be panic.

We All Know What Opinions Are Like – Here’s Mine

Now that a couple of days have passed, and I’ve had time to actually gather some information, I have come to the conclusion that even if this was the right move for Yahoo, the implementation was faulty.

And I’m inclined to think this may have been the fastest, though not the best, resolution for Yahoo’s situation, IF the rumors about the lacking productivity of the remote teams are true.

(Of course, my opinion and my fellow bloggers or social media users is likely of little consequence to whether Yahoo! will reverse its position, regardless of whether our opinions are correct. However, the alternative idea of remaining silent when these kinds of issues hit so close to home, seems counter-intuitive, even hypocritical.

How can you tell people their voice matters, and then not speak? Stranger things have happened than bloggers being able to use our collective power to cause change. Back to the issue at hand.)

I started my research by simply reading the Yahoo! memo  leaked to All Things Digital, and I could see why it caused outrage to those who may be sensitive to the issue of telecommuting.

One of my favorite blogs, Spin Sucks, from one of our community members, Gini Dietrich, gives an example of a way the same message could have been communicated with better wording in the Yahoo! memo.

I agree that her version would have caused a much smaller uproar, perhaps none at all. Then I wonder  if alternative solutions were pursued.

I also noted that the memo in question came from the head of human resources, not from Meyer directly. Of course she had to have made the decision. But is it possible that she didn’t sign off on the phrasing in the memo? Is it likely that Yahoo never meant to indite telecommuting as a general practice?

Surely, if there are people abusing the telecommuting privilege, they should be let go. But what about the people who it is working for, who are adding value to the company, perhaps even because of telecommuting rather than in spite of it?

When telecommuting fails on such a large scale, it’s at least partly the fault of poor monitoring and management. Study after study shows that telecommuting actually benefits the company, the workers, even the environment. There’s the argument that it doesn’t spur innovation as much as productivity, but are the types of jobs that were remote, in this case, primed for completing projects or generating ideas?

Of course, as you’ll read in one of the stories below, the prevailing suspicion is that Meyer did this to force people to quit instead of firing them. Which also seems lazy, short-sighted, and ultimately bad for Yahoo if this is true.

It’s bound to throw out the baby with the bath water – there are likely great telecommuters who work better independently, adding value to the company. Instead of looking across the entire company and firing the appropriate people, cutting off an entire arm that may only be dead in the fingers … it just seems barbaric and backwards.

Here’s Why My Opinion – and Other Prevailing Ones – Could Be Completely Wrong

My opinion, as much as it relies on the available data to draw conclusions, still assumes a lot of things that may not be true. And this is where I believe some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue needs to be checked against the strictest view of the facts at hand.

Meyer may be making similar changes in the rest of the company we don’t know about. There’s an article where a former Yahoo telecommuter came forward to state that things were not efficient remotely.

Telecommuting may be bad for Yahoo’s culture, the way they’re doing it.

Still, even if time shows that Meyer took the correct action to right the company, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth as a former Yahoo consumer.

The only one of their products I use now is Flickr, and only because I can sign in with Google. For about two years I kept asking for help to reset my password – something I have to do quite often as someone who basically lives on the web – with no answer.

Public perception does count for something. But perhaps Yahoo’s public isn’t partly made up of tech consumers any longer – people like us who blog, use Flickr, or social media may not be central to their audience, and perhaps never were.

Below are the articles I read for your reference – it seems relatively easy to find negative press on the topic. The neutral and positive slants offer some great points, though I disagree with most of their conclusions.

Definitely worth a read if telecommuting affects your life, as an employer or as an employee. Without this discourse, Yahoo’s change in policy might have been taken at face value and been the start of a tide which rippled into the blind and abrupt end of telecommuting across the US.

Instead, as one of the articles below cleverly posits – the fact that such a well known company made what so many view as an obvious mistake has opened dialogue on a hidden trend – that of companies reversing the decision to telecommute after trying it and failing.

Perhaps the result of this open dialogue will leave all parties better prepared for this circumstance in the future.


Image courtesy of Flickr user Creative Commons License Yuko Honda

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