Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On Innovation and Yahoo's Telework Ban

As the old saying goes "Give the people what they want" (aw, shucks)... here's my defense of the Yahoo CEO's decision to enact a blanket ban on all telework.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (I've previously blogged about her here) was a fantastic recent hire. But it seems folks just can't resist tripping the proverbial prom queen. Unlike pretty much the majority out there who get off on second guessing every move she makes**, I, for one, am convinced she knows what the hell she is doing.

If anyone can right the sad, sinking ship that is Yahoo today, it's her. Informal poll time: show of hands, who uses Yahoo on a daily basis? Yeah, I thought not. I still use a Yahoo mail account and people actually make fun of me for it.

So when Mayer (the well-compensated tech genius expert) tells us (the technically-inept masses) she has mined Yahoo's employee VPN data and it has told her in no uncertain terms ALERT - the folks you have been paying to do the work aren't doing the work!, then she had the responsibility to do something about it. And she did - her move was a decisive, drastic one that has made her very unpopular in the press: she decided nobody at Yahoo is allowed to telework anymore.

For starters, nobody in her peer group is more data-driven and evidence-based in their processes than she is. Mayer made the decision by checking the data showing how much teleworkers were actually logging in to Yahoo’s network – and well, case closed. From the SF Chronicle:
“Likewise, we’re hearing from people close to Yahoo executives and employees that she made the right decision banning work from home.
“The employees at Yahoo are thrilled,” says one source close to the company.
“There isn’t massive uprising. The truth is, they’ve all been pissed off that people haven’t been working.”

There you have it: folks were not doing the work. Why her middle managers couldn't have effectively managed their own employees in the first place is of course, another story, and one that probably speaks to Yahoo's lackadaisical cultural problems that Mayer is trying desperately to correct. I prefer to call it strong, unflinching leadership on her part, but her critics are calling it some other unflattering things.

Her critics, such as Lisa Belkin in Huffington Post.com, are saying, "I had hope that as a new mother, she would use her platform and her power to make Yahoo an example of a modern family-friendly workplace"... it's a warning for everyone "that their lives don't matter." Seriously, Ms. Belkin? That sounds awfully hyperbolic. @Cloud, Wandering Scientist has a great analysis of why we aren't holding male CEOs to these same feminist standards.

Mayer's role is to lead a lagging company within the context of unforgiving American tech company capitalism - where it's survival of the fittest out there. Which, like most of corporate American life, is onerous hell to folks who need to take some time out of it for various reasons, but hey that's our system, and while I can't think of a better one either, I know we can do a few things better (uncoupling insurance from employment, universal child care, guaranteed paid maternity leave etc etc). But, as Mayer is not an elected official I would submit these concerns are not her primary problem. Instead, her focus is right where it should be: on building a collaborative workplace that will create and deliver inspired, innovative products. Buy into her vision, Yahoos, or get out. I can respect that, but I may not like it. And if I'm a recent Yahoo hire whose employment decision was predicated on my ability to telework, then yes, I have a legitimate grievance - but I'd wager that's a small subset of Yahoos. Certainly, there are also Yahoos out there who are grateful to have a leader with a snowball's chance in hell of saving their jobs.

As I've commented elsewhere, "productivity" alone is no longer the name of the game. There seems to be a dichotomy between productivity and innovation. Everyone's gut intuition about it and the current research seem to agree that telework improves productivity. But surprise, surprise telework is actually bad for innovation:
"Studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm. "If you want innovation, then you need interaction," he said.  "If you want productivity, then you want people to work from home."
Mayer was hired last year with a direct mandate to alter Yahoo's stagnating culture. A decade ago, Yahoo was a place where the best and brightest Internet hires came together to innovate. For too long, Yahoo has been coasting along on auto-pilot, losing market share while maintaining existing business lines rather than growing new ones (i.e. being "productive" rather than "innovative"? hmm....). Yahoo has obviously been outpaced by Google and Facebook - two companies which, by the way also frown upon telework, albeit in a less extreme way than Yahoo's anti-telework policy. Which ought to tell us something.

If this anti-telework trend catches on outside of the tech-specific domain, that will be a crying shame. Because we know for a fact telework is great for productivity at fixed jobs. At Yahoo, and at this specific historical moment for the company, I can totally see how Mayer made the correct call. So, please, let's all stop questioning Mayer's intelligence in these matters.

** By the way, they call this "Tripping the Prom Queen" (great book, BTW) wherein the strongest females are attacked by the weakest females - the exact opposite of the treatment of strong males in our society. I happen to think this explains most of the anti-Mayer and Sandberg rhetoric out there.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post! Thanks!

This innovation question is one that's also addressed a lot by the start-up blogs my husband reads... They suggest that the natural order of things is for a company to eventually outsource all their innovation to start-ups rather than doing it in-house.

I think that's not always true, and I know that hasn't always been true-- Bell labs lasted for a really long time, for example. But it does seem to be is a trend.

scantee said...

We'll soon find out, won't we? In a years' time we'll know if Yahoo's outlook has improved or not(although it will be hard to tease out the impact of this decision in isolation). My guess is that is will not make a difference. This is totally based on personal experience, working for large organizations where someone comes in and makes a Big Bold Decision meant to shake things up that totally falls flat. Why? Because changing the course of a huge company with entrenched problems involves making a lot of difficult, nuanced decisions and implementing many smaller changes over time.

That's not flashy or newsworthy though so I guess we'll have endure more headlines about Big Bold Decisions.

oilandgarlic said...

Good post. I, too, think that the "burden" of creating family-friendly workplaces should not fall on corporations, as they're focused on profit and oftentimes squeezing out as much as possible from employees. Example: Even if Google wanted to give 1 year maternity leave, they won't do it because they would fear losing any competitive edge against companies who don't give much of a leave. Only if the government makes it mandatory (like in Europe) would it level the playing field.

Haley said...

I think that as long as Yahoo is offering sufficient PTO balances to accommodate for the times when a child is sick, etc, then it could be a good thing. I know lots of people who "work from home" on Fridays and don't send their kids to daycare that day, and then disappear for much of the early afternoon and after 4. If everyone does it often, it starts to add up and piss off the people who spent 8 hours at the office.

That said, if good employees have to start taking unpaid time off because their kid is too sick for daycare but they're not allowed to bill 4 hours of legitimate work, then it's likely to drive some people away.

Got It, Ma! said...

Initially, I found myself grumbling about this when I read about it in the paper. But, when you look at Yahoo! as a single entity and not a representative of all corporations, as you've done here, it makes a lot more sense.

I'm really not sure why this has being treated a "feminist issue," other than the fact that Mayer is female. It's a workplace issue that effects men and women alike. It's not that I think Mayer shouldn't be measured against some pretty strict feminist standards when it comes to family friendly workplace policies. I just think her male counterparts ought to be measured the same way.

But still, it makes me nervous to see such a high profile company setting this example. Telecommuting (which to me means working from home - period; not working from home and watching your kids at the same time) has always been, for me, a source of both productivity and innovation. I don't really buy the work at home=productivity, work at the office = innovation thing, I guess. It strikes me as part of the whole extrovert ideal issue that Susan Cain talks about in her book, Quiet.

Most American offices are designed around flawed notions of group work being somehow better than individual work. They favor extroverts over introverts and offer little in the way of privacy or quiet to the average worker who must sit in a cubicle, not an office with walls and a door.

When I was working in an office (open plan with cubicles) my most productive and creative time was always the time I could carve out to work at home where it was quiet and no one interrupted me.

Meetings and collaboration are important but their success depends entirely upon workers also having access to quiet workspace that encourages introspection and creativity. The reality is that most offices don't provide that, so forcing everyone to report to the office every day may not solve all of Yahoos! problems.

The real issue seems to me to be accountability. Because I'll wager that those same people goofing off at home will be goofing off just as much in the office, and will also be a distraction to otherwise productive people.

Cloud said...

I will continue my behavior of having a bunch of tangentially related thoughts on this topic! I can't seem to synthesize them all for some reason.

1. I dislike the blanket policy, but also think that its Yahoo's business and any employee who disagrees with the new policy can find tech companies who still allow- even encourage!- working from home. Some of them used this as a recruiting opportunity.

2. The innovation angle is interesting. I'll have to think on that more and read the original research. I wonder if a hybrid model with a mix of office and home time would actually work best? Similar to, @Got It Ma, my instincts tell me that different people innovate in different ways. Heck, I think I innovate in different ways during different steps of the process. Sometimes a group discussion about architecture uncovers new ideas. Sometimes I need to sit in a quiet place and work through those ideas to see what other ideas come up.

3. I sometimes wonder how often the people leading tech companies make mistakes just out of lack of experience. I'm not saying that is what Mayer's doing here. But the tech world seems to put a premium on youth and knowing the latest tech fad over experience and understanding management principles. That is one of the reasons I stay on the fringes and make jokes about hopping over to internet/tech but never really do it. Not that the managers in my business really know squat about managing, either- it is the same problem, but they at least tend to have more experience so more time to have learned some things by trial and error.

4. I am seriously tempted to write a post about how business decisions need to be driven by business cases. I'm coming across too many well-meaning arguments that businesses should do something just because it would be nice. If we want businesses to handle certain societal problems for us, we have to think about how to make it in their best interest to do that, not just wag our fingers at them.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Innovation and productivity are both great things. That's why I think many people find a good balance being in an office 3 days a week, and not in an office 2 days a week. I wrote elsewhere about why Fri might not be the best work-from-home day (because of the whole long weekend temptation) but I don't see why this has to be a either/or thing. I could envision a team that worked tightly together deciding that they'd all be in the office M, T, and F, and they'd be elsewhere W and Th. They'd kick ideas off each other on the in-office days and they'd all crank out what they needed to crank out on the other ones. It doesn't have to be about childcare and family friendliness. Btw, I use yahoo mail too. I do get some people sending stuff to my gmail account, which I don't use, because they can't fathom that the yahoo one is the primary one.

Cloud said...

Oh, and I have a Yahoo email account, too. I'm too lazy to move and they've improved it enough now that I'm not feeling as much motivation to move. Maybe if I get around to setting up my own domain I'll move my email to that.

The Yahoo service I think is great is Flickr. I got on it recently, when my husband's homemade photo sharing service was down for an extended period of updating. I looked at Picassa and some others, and decided Flickr was the best one for me.

Anonymous said...

I think Flickr is an example of a big company outsourcing innovation. :) We still use photobucket because of hysteresis.

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