Yahoo's Telecommuting Ban a Doomed Attempt to Turn Back the Clock

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-02-28

Yahoo's Telecommuting Ban a Doomed Attempt to Turn Back the Clock

There’s no question that Marissa Mayer remembers the days when Yahoo was the biggest name on the Internet. In those days of glory, Yahoo’s place as a search engine, information portal and quasi social network were unrivaled. Back then Yahoo was a much smaller company than it is now (although now it’s much smaller than in its heydays). Clearly in those days, Yahoo was doing something right.

One of the things that Yahoo was doing right was to keep itself in a constant state of innovation. The company managed to do this by having two guys, David Filo and Jerry Yang, who worked together and spent a lot of time brainstorming.

When Yahoo launched its IPO in 1996, it had a total of 49 employees. Those were heady days indeed. And when I first met Jerry Yang shortly after that, his focus was on finding ways to help his company grow while finding the right people to create a world class company.

That was then. Now Yahoo has a new CEO who clearly misses those days when everyone in the company could sit around and toss ideas back and forth. Unfortunately, the Yahoo of then is not the Yahoo of now. The Yahoo of now is a global corporation that does everything from web hosting to video streaming. But it appears that Ms. Mayer wants to clone the old Yahoo, spontaneously born from the brow of today’s global Yahoo.

Problem is, this isn’t 1996. Try as she might, there’s no way Ms. Mayer can recreate the young, lean innovative company that was the product of the imagination of two engineers. Yahoo is not a broken toy that you can reassemble. In reality, it’s not the same company. But in Mayer’s effort to recreate the young, agile Yahoo she has chosen to adopt the least productive path—to ban telework.

The reason, she claims, is to put everybody back in the same building so their innovation can spring forth again. But in the process, she is knowingly casting away some of Yahoo’s best minds—probably into the arms of its competitors. Sure, she’ll make them sign non-compete forms, but it’s no secret that those are unenforceable. What she’ll do instead is enrich the talent pool of other companies at the expense of her own.

Yahoo's Telecommuting Ban a Doomed Attempt to Turn Back the Clock

But she’s doing more than that. Mayer is breaking the promises the company made to many of its employees when they were first hired when they were told they could work from home and not in Sunnyvale.

Even if these employees don’t leave, she has broken the company’s faith with them. How innovative and loyal will these employees be when they don’t believe that the company cares about its promises?

Leaving aside the broken promises and short-sighted actions of a CEO who thinks that one approach is right for every employee, and leaving aside the ludicrous idea that every employee must work in Sunnyvale, the fact is that telework makes sense and is a good business practice. It also saves the company money and has a number of other beneficial aspects.

The fact is that no one in any company spends every minute of every day innovating. They have to write papers and reports, they have to answer email; some have programming to do while others have design projects. Many work in sales and marketing that by necessity must be at least partly outside the headquarters.

Even those employees whose job description specifically calls for a focus on innovation can’t do it all day every day. All of those break room conversations and water cooler encounters aren’t necessarily breeding grounds for innovation. Many are just social interaction or simply a waste of time. So do even those employees need to be in the office every day? In reality they don’t.

Cindy Auten, general manager of the Mobile Work Exchange suspects that the real reason for the Yahoo ban on telework has more to do with its inability to manage its employees and with issues related to performance management. “It’s having a negative impact on the workforce,” she said. But Auten agrees that there are times when a face to face presence is important.

“We recommend a hybrid approach,” Auten said, “There are times when you come into the office.” But she noted that there are many ways to collaborate that don’t involve someone’s physical presence. “Google hangout is a great solution,” Auten said, explaining that her company uses that a lot for collaborative projects. And she noted a significant advantage for on-line collaboration. “There is no mute button on your office mate,” she said.

The fact is that Yahoo, like it or not, can’t turn back the clock to become the company that it was in the last millennium. What Mayer needs to do is find new ways to let the Yahoo of today innovate and perhaps by doing so bring about the very innovation she’s looking for to make the company grow, but by moving Yahoo into the future rather than the past.

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