Thursday, February 28, 2013

Telecommuting, Marissa Mayer, and the Workplace of the 21st Century

Should businesses allow telecommuting?

Fair disclosure: I have lobbied in the past for Apple to buy Yahoo!. I still hold that position. But what to make of Marissa Mayer's new no-telecommuting policy?

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, former Vice President at Google, recently announced a no-telecommute policy at Yahoo!. She has stirred up a lot of controversy. Notably, Forbes supports the ban arguing that face-to-face collaboration will foster innovation. Richard Branson argued that employees need to trust each other enough to work remotely. Many argue that for the good of parents and kids, parents need to be able to work from home and raise children.

Q: So who's right?
A: They all are.

Marissa Mayer and Forbes are right. Often a five minute conversation can resolve an issue that would require a 16 email chain. Videoconferencing can help to resolve acute issues that come up. But communication latency, compression artifacts, and limited resolution all hamper creativity. Have you ever successfully brainstormed remotely? It can work, but the not as well. Similarly, a lack of water-cooler time can prevent a cohesive culture from developing. Those cultural HR campaigns and marketing materials do little. I do disagree that working remotely damages trust. I have worked remotely with some consumate professionals who I would trust with my toughest projects. Similarly, I have worked in person with morons who barely understand their own jobs or sociopaths who try to push all of their responsibilities on others. Trust comes from competence and forthrightness, not from co-location.

Richard Branson is right, too. I personally enjoy the human aspects of my job. I make it into the office whenever I can. But I can't always make it in. Like every human being, I get sick. It's nice to work from home so that I don't have to use my PTO. Without the ability to work from home, employees will go to work sick and pass germs on to colleagues. My girlfriend and I used to live several hours away. Without the ability to work remotely one day a week, we wouldn't have been able to maintain our relationship. Surprise, Ms. Mayer! I would have chosen my girlfriend over my job. As a talented, in demand engineer and product manager, I have no shortage of recruiters emailing me. I am sure that Yahoo!'s top talent have many opportunities, too. I am sure that many busy parents are currently considering how to achieve a better work-life balance.

So what's a CEO to do? How to achieve the TAO of telecommuting?

First, blanket, no-telecommuting policies will be harmful in the long term. Those talented Yahoo! employees who want to telecommute will leave. Period. But how to achieve a common culture and foster creativity while facilitating a good work-life balance for all employees? Like anything else, develop a detailed, pragmatic plan.

All jobs should be classified into telecommuting bands, similar to the job levels many companies use to grant vacation days and other perks. Everyone needs to spend some time in the office. Yes, even that sysadmin who lives in another state and only needs an Internet connection in order to monitor the database and restart the servers. The company should fly him in for one week a quarter, do some knowledge transfer, and do some fun morale building activity. Others may need different amounts of time in the office. For example, an engineering manager may need to spend four or five days a week in the office. An engineer may only need to spend three days. A receptionist could not ever work from home.

Maximize productivity and creativity

My mother always told me You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and the old proverb is true. There are much better ways to foster creativity, productivity, and a vibrant culture than to force people into the office. Encourage employees to take an ownership stake in the success of their team, division, and company. I'm not talking about a financial stake. Those incentives don't work as well as you think. Allow workers to work on their own projects with an 80/20 policy or a 24 hour ShipIt contest.

Yahoo! and Telecommuting

I can't promise to understand all of the cultural and organizational issues at Yahoo!, but I'll donate my 2 ¢ to my noble bog readers anyway. Marissa Mayer has kept a high profile for a CEO. She has nearly five times as many hits on Google as Yahoo's founder, Jerry Yang. Certainly this announcement has generated a lot of publicity for Yahoo! of late. There is a good chance that lower level Yahoo! managers are already allowing their most valuable direct reports to violate the policy lest they walk. This policy may also die quietly. I do also think Yahoo! needs a shake-up. Its communities, Yahoo! groups and Flickr have been languishing in the wake of Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and the like. The temporary energy generated by this policy might work.

In the end, though, Yahoo!'s problem isn't policies, it's talent. Google has been purchasing the best engineers, scientists, and product managers for years. My best computer science professor left a high profile tenure track position at a top 25 university to take the Google money. Yahoo! shelled out a nice chunk of change to Ms. Mayer, but she won't transform the company on her own. Does Yahoo! have the money to buy the best and brightest? All the more reason for Apple to acquire the iconic Internet portal.

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