Yahoo! appears to have chosen a radical short-term plan that addresses a surface-level issue, rather than the underlying cause.
Reaction to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telecommuting came quickly and critically. Mayer is attempting to turnaround Yahoo!, a company that has churned through four CEOs and an untold number of employees in its fight to remain relevant in the face of Google’s search engine dominance.
Yahoo! will end telecommuting in June, effectively forcing remote workers to either return to the office or leave the company. Many media outlets decried Yahoo!’s policy reversal as a step backwards for working mothers and advocates of work-life balance while others considered the risk of the company’s best talent leaving for more flexible working arrangements.
What has not been discussed is that Mayer’s decision reflects a startling indictment of her team’s ability to build and lead high-performing remote work teams. Yahoo!’s internal communication to employees pointed out that “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” prompting some observers to suggest Mayer is attempting to identify and eliminate unproductive employees. However, no policy or control tactic will overcome weak leadership, a far bigger concern for Yahoo! than either work-life balance or the risk of losing its most coveted talent.
Some studies show that telecommuters are more satisfied and productive, such as Mobile Work Exchange’s 2013 Digital Dilemma report, which pointed out that work-from-home employees average nine hours more productivity per week. One factor contributing to these improvements, according to Chicago-based consultancy FurstPerson, is that telecommuters tend to organize their work around their personal lives.
There is a disheartening lack of competent managers in many U.S. companies - some estimates suggest that 50% to 70% of managers are ineffective. The challenges associated with managing a virtual team, which requires more skill than traditional management jobs, amplifies a manager’s already existing weaknesses. Some of the consequences for companies plagued by weak managers include poor quality, slow innovation, and lower productivity. The problem reflects management’s inability to lead effectively, not in an office and especially not from afar.
Nearly fifteen years ago, I was the lead author on an article, Remodeling the Electronic Cottage, which described four consequences of working from home. First, the lack of face-to-face interaction leads to social isolation and, consequently, lower job satisfaction. Second, telecommuting negatively impacts an employee’s professional and organizational identity. Third, successful telecommuters tend to be ambitious and conscientious, so if advancement is slow the employee will become disenfranchised and seek opportunities elsewhere. Finally, many companies use work-from-home models to avoid costs rather than as a well-articulated, data-driven strategy.
The social implications of telecommuting are important and should not be marginalized, but those issues are easily overcome with modern technologies and a supportive culture. The more fundamental concern is whether a company has the managerial talent necessary to compete effectively. If not, the organization will find itself in a struggle for survival, regardless of where work is performed.
The decision to focus on improving speed and productivity reflects Mayer’s understanding of the competitive landscape, but her focus on telecommuting appears to miss the central issue at Yahoo! … it’s all about leadership.