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.