Yahoo's new Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, has been making the headlines recently courtesy of a new policy which effectively revokes the company's longstanding flexible working policy.
In an internal memo sent to staff in February, the head of Human Resources wrote:
"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."
The memo was soon leaked to the outside world and was quickly picked up by the press and the online community, unleashing a storm of controversy and re-opening the debate on working from home.
My first impression was that this inflexible stance seemed to be, not only draconian but, bizarrely out of touch. Over the past decade advancements in technology in our switched on society have led to a significant growth in remote working and a general acceptance, by HR departments across the globe, that flexibility is a good thing - for the both the employer and the employee.
I felt a sense of outrage for those employers who had taken on a job on the assumption that they could work from home and who were now being told, in no uncertain terms, to get back into the office by June or join the unemployment queue. How was this going to impact on staff motivation and loyalty within Yahoo?
Meyer came to Yahoo from Google and Google, of course, is well known for its fantastically well-equipped offices and informal work spaces where staff meet up in the games room and come up with great new innovations whilst eating free snacks. Yes, I completely understand the value of people talking and debating face to face, of those random conversations by the coffee machine that can provide new insights, particularly in larger organisations, but you don't have to tether someone to their desk 5 days a week for this to occur. And doesn't the need to be in the office depend on your role and the contribution you are expected to make? Not everybody is an innovator and needs to bounce ideas around.
On the day that the story first came to my attention, I had been discussing home working with one of my PDMS colleagues who is based in the UK. Commuting to work on the Isle of Man is a bit of a non-issue, if you drive to work, at the most it's never going to take you more than an hour (recent snow blizzards excepted!). However, he explained that prior to working from home he had been spending over 4 hours a day commuting to the office on expensive, overcrowded and unreliable trains. He had to leave the office bang on 5pm in order to get home for 7-30 and this meant often having to stop abruptly in the middle of a task. He's now based from home which means he sees much more of his family, previously he had to leave the house before anybody else was up for breakfast. Additionally, he's also much more productive - he can work on a task until it's finished and can put more hours in as he hasn't got any travelling time.
Surely, I thought, a high flier such as Meyer couldn't ignore these upsides to working from home? Some people are more productive when they work at home without the distractions of office chitter-chatter and constant interruptions. There's no constrained 9-5 and they will put in additional effort and work on a task until it is completed. And then there's the cost savings and environmental benefits to be gained from home working - providing desk space, telephones etc. creates additional overheads, and commuting to and from an office everyday has a negative impact on the environment.
There seemed to be no middle ground - in Meyer's "my way or the highway" stance - an out of touch dictate from above with no flexibility. Or was it? Before I castigated Meyer as the Wicked Witch of the West, I decided to delve a bit deeper.lady on sofa
In response to the backlash Yahoo's new policy had created, with criticism from many corners ranging from Mumsnet through to Richard Branson, Yahoo issued a statement saying, "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now". Apparently memos have also been distributed to say that it's fine to work from home to accommodate the odd visit from a repair man etc.
Rumour has it that Meyer, well known for making decisions based on hard metrics and data, viewed the companies VPN logs to see if remote employees were checking in enough and discovered that they weren't. If this is true, some have argued that the connectivity to the VPN isn't a great way to judge productivity as some people don't need to be constantly connected to do their job e.g. sales people, engineers who need to dial directly into customer systems. If some home workers aren't productive, this a supervision and accountability problem and will forcing those poor performing individuals back into the office make them any more productive?
Some more cynical commentators have cited Yahoos' need to cut costs and believe that the home working ban is simply a ploy to cut headcount and salary overheads. I'm not sure I buy into that particular conspiracy theory.
Meyer certainly has a challenge ahead of her at Yahoo to turn the company around. The company has failed to exploit new money spinning trends e.g. social networking and mobile and it sits in the shadows of the leading lights such as Google in the "cool" stakes. The ban on home working may have been an attempt to deal with an allegedly de-motivated work force; bringing all hands on deck to help revitalise the organisation.
Whether the true motivation behind the ban was positive, to help people work together as a team, or was indeed an attempt to deal with productivity issues; it seems to me that issuing this blanket mandate won't really get to the nub of the issues that need addressing. Flexibility cuts both ways and generates goodwill, motivation and loyalty amongst employees - who are, without doubt, any organisation's best brand ambassadors.