CXO

Yahoo and the perils of going remote

In light of Yahoo's reversal on its employees working from home, Patrick Gray talks about why the decision is more complicated than people think.

Last month Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer brought remote working to the front pages by passing a dictate that effectively ended remote work privileges at the internet pioneer. Working from home, a little-discussed practice and perk in many technology companies and IT shops, was suddenly fodder for kitchen table discussions, with heated discussions on both sides and attacks on Mayer for offering Yahoo employees what amounted to a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. A little over a month has passed since the initial memo, and some additional clarity has surfaced.

Yahoos and bonbons

The stereotypical argument against working from home centers on trust. The assumption is that employees, left to their own devices and without physical supervision in an office setting, will gradually stop working and sit around in their pajamas collecting a paycheck without performing any meaningful work.

Shortly after the backlash around Yahoo's decision, rumors circulated that Mayer checked VPN logs and found that a significant portion of remote workers had not logged into the company for weeks, apparently lending credence to the "bonbon factor."

While this seems to speak poorly to employee character, in most cases it is more a sign of flawed management than employee malfeasance. The first key job of management, regardless of level, is identifying, allocating, and tracking activities that further the company's objectives.

When effective management is in place, where employees are physically located and how much time they spend "working" is largely irrelevant. I'd rather have an employee who can accomplish everything I ask, and do it right the first time in five hours each week from a sunny beach, than a warm body sitting in a chair for 60 hours who produces half-baked results and requires constant supervision.

For every remote employee popping bonbons and trolling Facebook, there's probably someone in a cubicle diligently opening and closing spreadsheets and appearing to be doing "something," without actually accomplishing anything.

Feet to the fire and collaboration

The second critical management task is accountability, a lack of which spreads like a cancer throughout an organization. Even if management is effectively allocating work, if there are only nebulous teams and "working groups" accountable for its completion, there is essentially no accountability whatsoever. Throw physically distant employees into a cauldron that already includes ineffective management and superficial accountability, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Even with the best management and accountability in place, collaboration is often cited as an insurmountable negative to remote workers. The oft-used example is the "watercooler conversation" where employees milling about a corporate campus bump into each other, and the ensuing chit chat results in a major innovation.

There's certainly something to be said for face-to-face interactions. I'll frequently put my butt on a plane for half a day to physically attend a critical 60-minute meeting, and the investment is completely worthwhile.

Well-planned, high-intensity working sessions with all the right players in a room can move a project forward more in a day than in months of working remotely. However, the "watercooler conversation" is overrated if your company culture has ossified into one where risk taking and innovation are effectively prohibited, and individual accountability has gone out the window.

All the watercooler chats in the world won't help a company in which risk-taking is a termination-worthy offense, and innovative new ideas are met with "that will never work here."

A shock to the system

From the sidelines, it appears many of Yahoo's purported problems are managerial and cultural. "Lost souls" cashing checks from home without ever logging into the network are likely more a symptom than the root cause of Yahoo's problems.

If this is the case, Yahoo clearly requires deep and dramatic cultural and leadership changes to breathe life back into the company. While the best remote workers can meet objectives and be highly productive, actively involving them in cultural change from afar is a difficult proposition.

In the best case, Mayer appears to be "going nuclear" in an attempt to revitalize Yahoo. Clearly there will be casualties, and highly effective remote workers with personal circumstances that prevent them from warming a cubicle for 40 hours each week will have little trouble finding another employer.

An alternate version of the story has Mayer as an overzealous boss going so far as to snoop through network logs and punishing the worker bees for the faults of the management. For the sake of Yahoo employees, and an early Internet pioneer, let's hope it's the former.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

40 comments
sslevine
sslevine

In the past I was the team leader for the lab group who built the "Pflexplace Remote" workstations for Pfizer employees. These included an ISDN connection, a Toshiba laptop with big docking station that included a very (at the time) snappy 2 GB JAZ drive, a Brother Multifunction, and a phone. These were used by workers at home, who if local, came into the office 2 - 3 days a week, and worked from home the other days. Some were shipped to other states for totally remote work environments. I must say, looking at the connection logs, these remote setups became the ultimate electronic leash. These workers would be 'ON' for crazy long work sessions - even at 3 a.m. I would say there was some "management oversight" in that case... :-)

Kaffeguy
Kaffeguy

I'm all for what Marissa Mayer is doing. This is a very good leadership strategy. We comment on why employees are not in accord with going back to the office. Have we asked ourselves, Why is she doing this? To get control and get a FEEL FOR HER EMPLOYEES. She has never said this was going to be for any length of time.

jwineburgj
jwineburgj

In fact, I'd go one step further. I would say that Marissa Mayer has already proven herself to be a very, very bad CEO. I don't think there's any doubt the she's identified a problem, but she's badly fumbled the solution. There were undoubtedly many talented Yahoo employees who worked remotely. Using a VPN login metric as an excuse to revoke everyone's remote privileges, will surely disrupt the activities of many of Yahoo's most-talented and well-functioning teams. If Mayer wanted to use VPN logins as a critical metric, then she should have fired the workers, supervisors and managers who engaged in, and tolerated, those specific transgressions. Her decision to use that metric to impact everyone, demonstrates the very worst kind of faulty logic. The correct metric is, of course, "output," and not VPN logins. And the ultimate responsibility for "output" rests with her supervisors and managers and, ultimately, with her ability to measure their "output." The basic actions taught in Management 101 are to Plan, Organize, Direct, and Control (PODC). As CEO, Mayer needs to be able to define Yahoo's mission and the specific projects and goals that are required to satisfy that mission. Once she's done that, she needs to be able to understand and measure the "output" (i.e. progress toward those goals) that are reported back to her by her managers and supervisors. Today, any adequate CEO recognizes that the "tactics" required to provide "output," e.g. who works remotely and who doesn't, are beneath his/her pay grade. I view Mayer's actions as grossly inappropriate, and maybe even desperate. It's obvious that she doesn't think (at least, not yet) that she has the ability to measure the "output" of her management team, She was clearly a poor choice for the position.

mandrake64
mandrake64

I use a Citrix environment for remote connectivity and do a sizable portion of my work with VNC across to desktops and servers sitting on the corporate network. Work is work regardless of where you sit or the volume of traffic logged or the times you connect. An enlightened boss does not have to be told this. He she recognizes who can be trusted to work effectively when telecommuting.

Datacommguy
Datacommguy

The first time six or seven years ago, it didn't work well - mostly because our CIO was a micro-manager and couldn't look over their shoulders every time he felt the need. A couple years later, he was gone and the new CIO allowed one of our better workers who relocated to a city several hours away when her husband changed jobs to continue in her job remotely.. She's been working remotely for five years now - with one day a week in the office to attend meetings, etc - and it's still working quite well. As mentioned above, with the right tools and a test database on a PC or laptop, with a VPN link for crisis help and email to keep in touch, I suspect we get more out of our remote worker than we do from many who are physically there all week.

mandrake64
mandrake64

Teleworking is not purely for the worker's benefit, but it is a privilege not a right. The loyalty factor: For those who have the privilege of working from home or a beach somewhere in the tropics, there comes responsibility. If you are a loyal employee, then this can act as an incentive to give more than expected. There is many a time where I have worked longer than the nominal hours when working remote. I appreciate the option and give accordingly. I'd rather not go to work and commute for up to 3.5 hours a day. They give, you give. If you are a slacker then giving more is probably the furthest from your mind. Time to think: Working in a relaxed environment, free from distraction is a bonus for teleworkers, but does not mean you are relaxed yourself. You have to set up your environment carefully to avoid distractions but the benefits are tangible. Most companies will have a teleworking guideline for such work space and a regular review of the effectiveness of the work arrangement. Mine has a policy and an audit sheet as well. For a coder, there is a measurable outcome: working code delivered quicker than if you were in the office. You just have to keep good timekeeping records yourself as to what you are doing on each day and can show that you are doing what you are asked to do. I liked the view that regardless of where you work, as long as you are meeting expectations and milestones, then you are doing your job effectively. If you happen to provide after hours support remotely, working from home or the car or a tent out in the forest is par for the course. Teleworking on an official basis one or two days a week is not far removed from the after hours support scenario anyway.

maszsam
maszsam

It would cost Yahoo! or some other company about $20k to set up an office like mine for an employee and probably about $5k-$10K a year for over head (square footage, equipment deprication, lights, cleaning etc.) . Unless you are a corporate officer, that isn't going to happen. Also, not having to commute lets me get started earlier and work later with way less stress when needed. No question: It would not be possible for me to be as productive if I had to go into some office workstation. The point would be that instead of a brain dead "one-size-fits-all" knee-jerk reaction, real management should have been used. The correct approach would be to put out the "We were shocked to learn..." memo, figure out who really stinks in the mix, fire them, and then fire who ever else isn't smart enough or willing to bring it when the buzzer goes off. What? Is Yahoo! so lame that they can't even figure out who is carrying the load and who the pretenders are? Do they think that insulting the good employees for the actions of the bad ones, is a good move? If a business isn't smart enough to know what is getting done and so lame they don't have controls in place, they are begging to get "porked". Now after getting what anyone but an idiot would see coming, they react with an equally foolish plan? On the other hand, that sort of figures, if you think about it. No wonder Yahoo! hasn't gotten anywhere while Google had become one of the richest companies in history.

jwhwab
jwhwab

Yes, it does show the employees bad character and it was flawed management- she should have fired the lazy bums. There's too many out there looking for work to keep them.

alex.a
alex.a

While some people do not seem to understand that working remotely is a very valid alternative to working in an office, as this article states clearly, the success of working remotely is very much based on the management style. Worked for years for a company where how much time you spent on a project was secondary to meeting checkpoints and targets. As one example, and this is many years ago, I led a project which I had brought to management and obtained approval. I scoped the work and the skills required. My team had a fellow in England, one in NY and one in North Caroline. I was stationed in Toronto at the time. We collaborated through emails. I assembled all the information and presented to my manager, along with any issues, etc. These would be resolved, and on we would go. The project was completed on time and on budget. To this day I have never met, nor even talked to the folks on my team. This is only one example of many. Today I work as an independent consultant. I may spend a few days to a week at the customer site, then will disappear, sometimes for a few months, simply sending in regular reports of progress. I then go to the customer when the work is finished for an acceptance session. My son-in-law lives in BC, but heads a team of programmers who live in various parts of Ontario. The last time the team actually saw each other was 5 years ago. In spite of this, they are pumping out new programs, and updating existing ones. So, this idea that one cannot do work remotely is total bull. With the correct management controls, it does not matter where the work is done. Water coolers, and even face to face meetings are highly overrated. One last example. I took a course as part of getting my Master's degree. There was a collaboration project as part of this course. This again, was done totally via email. One of the members of the team was from the US, another from Australia, one from India and myself in Canada. We received an A+ for the project. To this day I do not know the sex of the person from India, given that the name was rather unusual based on North American standards. No issue, the objective was to do the work, which we did. Thanks, Alex

uwishtoo
uwishtoo

I work mostly exclusively by remote for 12 different clients and I am up at 5 am working and alot of days working as late as 10 pm. Sure I do my own thing for part of the day, I go to the gym, do my laundry, run errands, but I also put in more hours than I used to sitting in an office and I get more done too, no co workers yakking and wasting my time, no phones ringing, no emails being answered etc. I also don't waste 2 hours or more commuting and stuck in traffic.

genebray
genebray

While I do agree with Patrick Gray's comments pertaining to managerial failure, the failure here is not a one-way street starting with management. The employees failed live up to the their end of the terms of employment which is to do the job they were hired to do as well as they can. Good employees do not have to "managed" every minute of every work day to produce quality work. Some employees need more management than others. While Patrick's comments certainly highlight a major problem with Yahoo management, there is also a problem with employees who aren't working.

medcombwb
medcombwb

We have a very small company and have tried many times to have employees work remotely. It seems as though many people are not the self starters and the motivated employees that we would all hope for. Inevitably, the employees work less and less to the point where, when they are called, come to find out they are NEVER at home working, but out 'taking care of things'. We have tried and tried many different scenarios of managing the remote workers but it always comes back to the same conclusion, when they are coming into the office under at typical 9-5 situation, things seem to go better. I would LOVE to be able to have all employees be remote, but it seems as though with most people the self discipline is not there. I personally am really surprised at this. BUT, I guess if they were that type of self starter, they too would not be an employee but an employer.

darcyi
darcyi

With the advent of cube farms, workers are escaping home so they can work in peace. Those apocryphal "chance meetings that generate the next big idea" have been promulgated by office furniture companies who sell the divider units for these cubes, and by managers who now are free to change the layout every few months to make it look like they are doing something.

cbeckers
cbeckers

Having worked from home for most of a decade before I retired last year, I can tell you that what keeps a home worker working is having actual responsibility for providing a specific work product within an agreed schedule. The home worker must be viewed as if they were a consultant and the home worker must have the mindset of a consultant.

skf
skf

Lots of people today are realizing that they are not coming out ahead after years of long commutes and constantly wearing out cars.

Reality Bites
Reality Bites

Mayer is an great example of the moron ceo that goes from one knee jerk reaction to the next. She knee jerks so hard she hits herself in the head, you can tell from the dazed look in her eyes. Rather than solve the problem she just uses her immense weight to squash everyone, never actually understanding how to fix anything. Yahoo will continue downhill until it's bye bye dumb Mayer.

ChrisTheta
ChrisTheta

If every working person made something concrete and measurable like Widgets, then managing by results (who cares where they are as long as the work gets done?) is fine. But most of us don't work in factories and aren't judged solely by statistics like lines of code written or help desk tickets closed. So managing by results is not the end-all of performance management. Working from home takes dicipline, but not everyone has the mentality to do that and be as effective as they would be in the office. Saying that employee laziness is management's fault is placing the blame at the wrong end. They were trusted by management to do their jobs and were caught not doing them and stealing from their employers. That's right - stealing. Taking money for doing nothing. Marissa did what any boss would do and checked up on her employees. If her employees hadn't connected to the corporate network in weeks then there is an obvious problem and she was right to put her foot down. I wouldn't blame her for firing the worst offenders.

aldigio
aldigio

Dear Mr. Gray, You have answered your own question in this article. You state in the last section of your article, "A shock to the system" that what Yahoo! needs are "deep and dramatic cultural and leadership changes". I think that is exactly what Marissa Mayer is trying to do. You also seem to suggest that workers who go to the office are less productive than those who work from home. Is that your opinion or do you have facts to back up that claim? I think the key point is that Marissa Mayer recognizes that she needs to change the culture at Yahoo! and to do that you don't accept the status quo. Getting workers to come to the office is a "wake up call" that lets employees know that things are going to be different now. I would think that most employees would welcome the decisive leadership style of Ms. Mayer. It's a message that says, "hey we are Yahoo!, we can perform better, we can have a greater presence in the market, we can be a tech leader!" The idea that by working from home "I'm more productive" is so out of touch with reality. The most effective form of communication is face to face. Somehow the notion that we are more productive communicating with each other through electronic devices has permeated the work environment. Rather than criticizing Marissa Mayer, you and other tech writers ought to be praising her for doing something visible in an effort to, as you say, make "deep and dramatic cultural and leadership changes" at Yahoo!.

cpetit
cpetit

Self-motivation is definitely key. A very self-motivated employee, with the right tools, and doing a job conducive to that, can be very productive remotely. However, the real key isn't whether or not someone works remotely. The real key is how productive is the employee? VPN logs won't show how much work someone gets done. For example, developers may access corporate e-mail through a web interface. Or, they may be running a virtual environment from their laptops which does not need VPN access. A better metric is knowing what each employee does and seeing how many deadlines are met and seeing the quality of the work. If employees work in teams, then the team must be held responsible. It is then up to the team to report slackers to management, so the slackers get the help they need, moved to a different team or in extreme circumstances, if nothing else works, terminated. I think that is what the author of this article meant. It's not management's job to micromanage each employee, but it is their job to deal with unproductive employees and reward those who are productive. And, a group of self-motivated employees can tell when one of their team isn't pulling his/her weight. They should then inform management.

chris.leeworthy
chris.leeworthy

Surely they should have been able to gauge the effectiveness of their people by looking at the performance of the projects those people were assigned to? If the only thing you have to go by is "have they connected to the corporate network?" you're in a pretty poor place. As one of the other posters pointed out, there's nothing to stop folks from establishing a VPN connection and then wandering off and doing something else. It's equally possible that some productive people would be caught it such a trawl because the work they were doing didn't require access to the corporate network.

relmasian
relmasian

Work-home versus work-workplace should not be all or none. Some projects can be done well and with greater flexibility at home. Others, require workplace resources. Both managemnt and employees should be flexible in their hours and where work is done with neither abusing the other in work hours or work required/accomplished. (Well, maybe just a teeny bit by each.)

kingkong88
kingkong88

When you are in the same room or same building, a lot of things can be done with minimal effort. You know who is bogged down or not - you don't have to poll everyone to see who is available. You know who may be *about to* finish a task. You can see who could do with some help. You can assign tasks with a wink or a nod - you don't have to first draw up a Gantt chart. I am not suggesting that good management techniques can be thrown out when you are working physically together. But when you can see one another all the time, many things can be done at much lower cost. Remote distributed workplace is good for very mechanical tasks, where the cost of assignment is a very small fraction of the time taken to do the work, eg a typist, a data entry clerk. When it is a architecting or design work with very fluid scenarios or where collaboration (work needs more than one person to get done) is a must, it is not efficient.

neil.postlethwaite
neil.postlethwaite

All of the above seems to condense down to the root cause of the problem being Ineffectual Management', and not being able to know the volume, quality and whether their reports are delivering. Any argument against remote working must also be applied to any outsourcing/off-shoring - how do you know they are doing anything worthwhile too ?

peter.wood
peter.wood

I largely disagree with the idea that management are responsible for making the employees work. Employees must be self motivated. The best companies are the best because they have the right people, who want to work. Yahoo's "comfortable" culture has been the subject of numerous articles lately. Marissa is clearly trying to change that, and it's difficult to do when many of your staff are not in the office. If she fails, Yahoo will continue to slide and many more will loose their jobs. I wish her luck and support the tough decisions she needs to make.

JohnSBroadbent
JohnSBroadbent

I'm fortunate to work for a company that allows me to choose when to spend 2 useless hours (1hr there and 1hr back) in traffic to come into the office. Even on the days I come into the office, I work from home until peak is cleared, then travel the same distance in 22mins. I'm also not KPI-ed on hours, but on results, measured in my case by customer satisfaction, project progress and pipeline. The article above points to the root cause being one of culture and leadership. Perhaps Mayer hasn't yet understood that 'passionate people produce', and the passion level is set from the top!

pivert
pivert

When I work from home, I also connect when needed. I have a full test environment on my laptop and for e-mail it's no longer necessary to connect via vpn. And I easily do 2 hrs extra per day because of not being in a traffic jam. And I wouldn't want to work from home all the time because personal contact can't be virtualized (yet)

adornoe
adornoe

their work as expected, is more a reflection on the employees' lack of respect, and just shows that, those employees are not trustworthy. "...in most cases it is more a sign of flawed management than employee malfeasance" That statement above might be true sometimes, but not in most cases. The company might have taken a gamble, and decided to trust those remote employees, but, the major blame is on the employees for violating the trust put on them. When an employee is not producing as expected, and they asked to be trusted with working remotely, then it's incumbent on the employee to not disrespect the trust that the company empowered them with. Management might be partly to blame when they don't look for the productivity and the reporting back from the employees, but, if an employee asks to be trusted and breaks that trust, then it's the employee that messed up and should lose whatever privileges he/she was entrusted with.

io_zen
io_zen

1. how many layers of management does Yahoo have? 2. what's the manager/employee count? I think CEO going after VPN logs is an overkill for a company of Yahoo's size (checking VPN logs at $3000/hour sounds pricey). Instead, there should've been some structural changes within the company across all managerial chains.

pfeiffep
pfeiffep

Simply ascertaining who is working by analyzing log files is pretty short sighted...especially from someone in upper management. Without knowing the assigned tasks per individual a logged session to VPN is really not indicative. Certainly a developer might be working in a virtual environment that just might prevent VPN connections.

maj37
maj37

If she/they found people that had not logged in for weeks, and weren't on sick leave, then the solution was to fire those employees if for nothing else being to stupid to sign in and pretend to be working. I do not know if getting rid of the remote work situations was the right thing or not, but then that is why she gets paid the big bucks, as they say.

sonia_singh
sonia_singh

Work from home according to me is providing more flexibility to employees, and at the same time expecting them to be more effective now that they have the desired flexibility. It does not mean letting go losing track of how effectively the employee is working. Before letting employees work from home, I hope Yahoo! thought of making that more effective by regular performance tracking of employees who work from home. There can be constant communication among the team members and their managers who report to higher levels. Work from home is not a "bad idea" if managed smartly.

KristiMetz
KristiMetz

This is one of the more thoughtful articles I've read on the topic. I'm not sure I agree with your final conclusion, but it does at least make sense. And I think your points about oversight and accountability are very apt.

chris.leeworthy
chris.leeworthy

Productivity has to be a result of a symbiotic relationship between workers and management. You're right that employees must drive themselves, but managment must provide the support, monitoring and disciplinary frameworks to ensure that what employees do helps the company achieve it's goals. Doesn't matter if you're a crew without a captain or a captain without a crew, either way that ship won't sail.

erh7771
erh7771

...put a stopping point on it.

Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson

Many of the systems I work on are cloud accessible and no VPN is needed. So monitoring my VPN logs is deceiving. At the same time, all my business email logs and most phone logs are available to my employer. I have to provide regular status reports - all of which are verifiable so forgery would be stupid. Bottom line, even if I WERE "consuming bonbons", I would have to be phenomenally productive between bites to do so. And if that's the case, why would my employer want to complain? Sounds to me like Yahoo needs better accountability tools rather than punishing its employees.

erh7771
erh7771

... a way to track it. That's not a matter of trust that's a matter of good delegation and follow up, a management issue I would hire adults, if they got a 40hour week done in 10 then I'd give them more to do if available.

SKDTech
SKDTech

It is more likely that she directed the managers to review their employees performance and discovered a common "waste area" of people in multiple departments not doing any actual work when "remote". Then, rather than issuing pink slips left and right she decided to end remote work for the time being and make it something to be earned once employees had proven that they are productive. This is all supposition of course, but I still doubt she personally logged into the servers and went through the logs.

SKDTech
SKDTech

Much more likely that reports from managers revealed a systemic problem within the company. Isn't this the Marissa Meyer that used to work at Google? I seriously doubt she is the kind of IT-ignorant numpty that doesn't understand how remote access works or that developers don't need to be actively logged in 40+hrs/wk to perform their jobs.

adornoe
adornoe

If an employee wants to be trusted to work remotely, with minor supervision, it means that, the employee feels comfortable enough to work on his own to get the work done, and if the management entrusts the employee with the privilege of working at home, then, it's entirely incumbent on the employee to produce as expected, and to not violate the trust which he has been given. Like I said before, remotely working is a minimal supervision "working environment", and the employee is expected to do self-management and to produce as expected. When an employee violates the trust he's been "empowered" with, then that employee should lose the remote work privilege, and perhaps should even be fired, because, he violate the trust he had been given, and makes the management look foolish and the company less productive. If management needs to be constantly on top of a remote employee, to make sure he's at his desk and/or computer, and being productive, then, the situation screams for bringing the employee back to the office. Not everybody is suited for remote work, and many who take advantage of the privilege and violate the trust, are the least qualified to work remotely.

erh7771
erh7771

...at all that they would look at VPN log files and think no one is working when everyone doesn't need VPN access to do there work and to communicate with others remotely.

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