By now you’ve already felt the shock wave in the telework community about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to reign in remote workers. The internal memo, leaked a few days ago, stated:
“We need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. 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.”
There have been many that have criticized the move, claiming it was a silent layoff, while others have suggested that there was wide scale abuse of Yahoo’s flexible work practices and this was Mayer’s attempt to fix bad behavior. Regardless of the motive, the real question is whether Yahoo is correct in its assumptions. Are speed and quality sacrificed when people work from home? Do people need to be physically present together to collaborate? Is geography a key driver to teamwork?
Most experienced virtual workers have an almost allergic reaction to the memo. For the most part, Yahoo’s claims appear to be largely unfounded. In several studies over the past few years, teleworkers have repeatedly expressed that they feel more productive than their office-bound counterparts. Furthermore, a study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee just over a year ago found that teleworkers had higher job satisfaction from restricted face-to-face interaction, keeping them better insulated from distractions like office politics, interruptions, and impromptu meetings, some of the very things Yahoo is trying to encourage.
However, Mayer has her supporters. Some, including a few former Yahoo executives, believe Mayer made the right call. Columbia Business School Professor Raymond Fisman wrote in a recent CNN article that, “Personal interaction is still the most effective way of conveying a company’s direction, and keeping tabs on what different parts of the organization are up to.” Fisman goes on to cite research that was conducted over 40 years ago and says that more recent research “finds business leaders still spend 80% of their time in face-to-face meetings.” I, too, spend a lot of time in face-to-face meetings, except mine are usually done via video and telepresence and I have yet to feel that I have lost any sort of personal interaction with my coworkers.
Personally, I disagree with Yahoo’s decision, not only because it doesn’t appear to be based on facts, but it may ultimately hurt morale, lead to unwanted turnover, and cost the company money (whether it is the soft cost of productivity or the hard cost of paying high salaries in the Bay area). If employees are taking advantage of current teleworking policies then the real issue is leadership and how managers are measuring performance and setting expectations. No organization survives without good leadership, regardless if people are sitting elbow to elbow or sitting on opposite sides of the globe. If Mayer and her team can figure that out, they may be able to turn the company around.