When Marissa Mayer the CEO of Yahoo! got her HR Head to issue the memo on home working to staff, she cannot have had any idea of the storm she would cause around the world.
The memo is headed CONFIDENTIAL and DO NOT FORWARD but millions of people have read every word, including the 12,500 Yahoos to whom it was directed.
The issue is that working from home will be banned from June. Every staff member will be based at a Yahoo! office like it or not. And if you don’t, you can leave the company. It is as blunt as that.
Why? Because of the buzz, culture and energy in Yahoo! offices, is not available from home apparently. Working alongside each other boosts productivity and creativity we are told.
Some have grabbed this memo and made it an icon of a sea change for work practices. The push back on the home working phenomenon; the end of an era. Others have pushed right back saying this is a retrograde step and will damage Yahoo! and undermine creativity and productivity. Who is right? Ten thoughts.
1. One problem is seeing this as a battle of opposites in contrasting corners of the ring. This is not true at all. There are a million varieties of working practice between the one extreme of compulsory office attendance for set hours (the old 9 to 5 routine “what a way to make a living!” as the song said) and working permanently from home with no office or access to an office. Most people now fit somewhere in between. They have what we call ‘flexible working’ either in terms of location or in term of hours or indeed both. No one who has this, wants to give it up, and everyone who is denied this would like to have it. How you define flexibility is up to each organisation.
2. Work in an office can be an uncreative hell; work from home can be a communal and creative experience. It depends on how you manage it. The idea that the former is about creative buzz and the latter low productive boredom is simply not true, it depends on countless other factors.
3. For most people, work is not one thing. Some days it is about sharing and engaging whilst others require silence and solitude. It depends on the task in hand. That is why flexibility is the key word not home or office based. Taking away flexibility has bigger consequences than filling up the office car park.
4. Most good employers trust their employees to do a good job even if they cannot see them. Staff ultimately choose to engage or disengage and this has everything to do with approach and culture rather than physical location.
5. Edicts like the one from the Head of Yahoo! HR encourage presenteeism. There in body, absent in mind. Human beings are complex and if a simple trick like bring everyone into the same building was a guarantee of success, guess what? Noone would be allowed to work anywhere else. Flexibility was introduced to solve problems and leverage communications technologies; it did not happen for the sake of it.
6. For a technology company to suggest that technology has no part of the answer is strange to say the least. In a world of Skype, social networking, IM and countless more apps. it is possible to build strong, remote communities. If not, why are we wasting our time on this stuff?
7. Increasingly people have global teams, many of whom will never meet physically. The best mangers turn these into powerhouses of creativity and engagement, the worst into non- functioning individuals who pay only lip service to the team. It is not location but organisation.
8. Defining expectations is much more important than physical proximity.
9. Staff who feel that flexible working allows them to get their life under control are massively more productive than staff who feel that their life is not their own. Grinding commutes everyday, take their toll physically and emotionally. Why do this if you don’t have any reason for doing it.
10. Blaming home working for the malaise at Yahoo! is like blaming your car for pranging the curb. It is more complex to analyse the root causes of disconnection and harder to fix than making simple pronouncements but far more useful in the long run.
What am I saying? Making these kind of brash judgements will not change the culture of Yahoo! or make it more productive or creative. At the very least nothing much will change. At worst, you will create such a negative image about the place that the brightest and best will not want their career associated with such a company. It will be seen as having 20th century work practices and is proud of that. Like so many things, the image will play stronger than the reality. That is very bad news, for a technology company in the technology industry with a head office a stone’s throw from some of the most highly rated employers in the business. It could be disastrous.