Will Yahoo’s Telecommuting Ban Hurt Recruitment?

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has put the kibosh on working from home, raising plenty of eyebrows as the rest of the tech world — and indeed the wider business world — continues to shift toward greater workplace flexibility.

Yahoo HeadquartersIn a memo obtained by AllThingsDigital, the company’s HR chief, Jackie Reses, said that “to become the absolute best place to work … we need to be working side-by-side.” Reses continued:

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.

Reportedly, Mayer has been miffed by the way parking lots at the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters have been slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty at 5 p.m. The edict applies to both those who work from home one or two days a week, as well as people who telecommute full time.

The Grumbling Begins

Yahoo workers, some of whom say working from home was part of their employment agreement, aren’t happy. In the Twittersphere, working parents seem aghast that Mayer, a new mother herself, would ax arrangements so central to the juggling act they perform between work and family demands.

The move runs counter to worldwide trends, according to management consultant Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network. Employees of all age groups want “the flexibility to determine for themselves where, when, and how they work,” she says.

[Companies have] learned that when they ignore the where, when and how work is done and focus on results, their people are more productive, more creative and more successful. That all translates into greater loyalty, engagement and productivity.

On the other hand, Business Insider characterized the move as one that previous CEOs knew they needed to make, but didn’t. An unnamed source told the website that Mayer was making the tough decisions necessary to combat the organization’s bloat. If some people quit? That’s fewer to lay off, Business Insider points out.

Good Idea, Bad Approach

Where Yahoo seems to have failed is in execution, Lister says.

“If they have no idea what their remote workers are doing, they’re obviously not managing by results. Perhaps it’s a function of their rapid growth. Perhaps they failed to teach their managers how to manage,” she argues. “The execution failed, not the concept.”

And was this really a strategic move? Recruiter Steven Levy thinks it was more of an “executive temper tantrum” than an informed decision. “The mechanics of a highly effective telecommuting policy are very complicated and require ‘self-actualized’ workers and managers,” says Levy, the managing director of analytics and technology search and consulting firm BlueWaterLabs. “Technology tools are by no means a sufficient backdrop to a great program.”

Organizationally, not all managers are capable of managing telecommuters, not all teams are comprised of the right associates who can work collaboratively, and not all projects and functions warrant a telecommuting option. In other words, in assessing the program I’d be very surprised if Mayer doesn’t first look at all these factors and make changes to Yahoo’s management and talent ranks. It’s my understanding that she is already taking a fine tooth comb to Yahoo’s recruiting cultural-fit model. I wish more CEOs took as much interest in recruiting as Mayer.

A Recruiting Disadvantage

Kate Lister recounts how the HR head of MySQL, before it was purchased by Sun and then Oracle, once told her the company could never have achieved its success without being able to hire the best talent globally. It had employees on every continent except Antarctica — all working remotely.

She believes Mayer’s move will hurt Yahoo’s recruiting and retention efforts. In a recent blog post she pointed out that the contemporary workforce isn’t from the age of Mad Men. Today’s workers, she said:

  • Want to be trusted.
  • Want to do their best and feel like they’re a part of greater whole.
  • Want to be treated like adults.
  • Will go somewhere else or venture out on their own if they can’t get what they want.

Despite the popularity of remote work, John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says there is some wisdom behind the memo’s sentiment.

“Yahoo is definitely in a fourth-and-long situation, so it needs to try new tactics,” he said in a statement. “There is a collaborative advantage to having all of your employees in the office. However, there is also an advantage in having the best and brightest tech workers on your payroll. The question is whether this move will result in an exodus among the company’s top talent.”

Recently, Challenger’s company called for more companies to support telecommuting. However, that was based on a report from Texas A&M that found that increased traffic congestion forced the nation’s workers to build extra time into their daily commutes, to the tune of $121 billion in wasted time and fuel during 2011.

5 Responses to “Will Yahoo’s Telecommuting Ban Hurt Recruitment?”

  1. No, it won’t hurt Yahoo, there are plenty of “work from home” jobs and contracts for those roles where it makes sense but for developers who are creating some interaction and face time is required. The friendly competition that comes from working on a team of talented people is very inspiring and since the virtual technology isn’t quite there yet to truly bridge the gap – although that’s arguable – this is a smart and necessary move on her part.

    I have been working from home as a DBA for over 15 years and it is great but if I could find the right team and atmosphere I would actually prefer to be onsite at least half the time. I cling to remote because work environments are so sterile and unfriendly. So Yahoo’s success will depend on how well she is able to make working at Yahoo a pleasant experience.

    Conference rooms should be more like living rooms and offices should have less hard surfaces. Who wants to be in a prison all day with buzzy fluorescent lights where people act like strangers? Still work can’t become too relaxed so it is very challenging. I believe the answer is in flexibility. Let some work three 10 – 12 hour days and call that full time – many people are wired that way especially creative programmers. While others just need a couple of days a week on their own to process ideas. There is room for a lot more variety in what we call a professional work environment.

    That’s my rant.

  2. I think that Yahoo is adopting the all or nothing approach to this issue, and that they should have tried a more balanced approach by allowing people to work from home 1 or 2 days a week max. Even 1 work-at-home day per week helps, as workers can schedule such things as doctor appointments. When people are slightly sick, they will take the entire day off, as they no longer have the option of working from home. I think that they will see an increase in absenteeism and a decrease in morale.

  3. DanBar

    Many of the quoted comments speak about recruiting the best people from anywhere and having the right management skills to manage remotely.
    I think these comments are ignoring the fact that currently Yahoo has a very large work-force with less than optimal productivity and hence less than optimal management skills.
    Assuming that Yahoo cannot just replace two thirds of its work force, it makes sense to make the management of productivity a bit less challenging.
    By bringing most of the people into the office, you may lose a few good people, but the up-side is more inter-company (hallway) communications, easier day-to-day management and getting some of the people to produce more by just making them work more and be more focused (aparently in Yahoo not all telecommuters are working hard and effectively).
    When you want to change the workplace culture you need to create a few crises, to have people understand and internalize that the guiding values or at least the rules of game have changed.

  4. Mary B. Winfield

    Telecommuting is an environment that can be successful if implemented with (1) policy regarding time management (2) conference calls with manager/supervisor and other team members (3) trust. Telecommuting allows parents to save money with outside child-care, commuting costs (gas, tolls, parking in urban markets, train/subway). Telecommuting lessens the possiblity of a parent needing to take a day off form the office to care for sick child and take the sick child to the doctor. Or provide care for an elderly parent.

    We are in the 21st century. Telecommuting requires HR corporate policy that spells out core working hours, communication protocol between the worker and management, and time reporting for assigned projects.

    This decision by Yahoo’s new CEO sounds like a management problem to me, not a worker bee problem. And it appears as a knee jerk reaction by top management to stop all telecommuting. As Kate Lister said when interviewed “Perhaps they failed to teach their managers how to manage,” she argues. “The execution failed, not the concept.” Many Fortune 1000 and 500 companies use a telecommuting workforce with success, and worker retention is an important aspect showing stability.