Published on: March 7, 2013
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Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.
I've been thinking and reading a lot over the past week or so about the new dictum from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer that all company employees have to work in the office, at least in those cities where Yahoo has offices. In other words, no more working from home, no more telecommuting. The argument seems to be that while people may be productive when working at home, the lack of personal interaction makes them - and the company - less innovative.
One of the reasons this debate is interesting to me is that I've spent a lot of my life working from home. The first time was in the late eighties. I was a staff writer for the old "Supermarket Business" magazine, my wife was a banker, and we had a small child in day care. But suddenly we lost our childcare, and had to make a quick decision - and my boss, Ken Partch - not a man known for a relaxed or progressive attitude towards his staff - said that I could work from home until we got our childcare situation worked out. Our publisher, Jeff Schaeffer, agreed. So suddenly, I was in what was then brand new territory - I'd make phone calls to research stories, write them on this enormous Leading Edge computer that was on my desk, and then, if I recall correctly, would print out and mail the copy to the office. (I don't think the office had email at the time.) And I did this while feeding our son, going for walks, taking care of the dog, and doing the cooking. I think I was pretty damned productive, and I don't think my writing suffered.
I eventually went back to the office when we got a nanny, but by 1994, when I became a freelance writer and video producer, I've pretty much always worked from home at least part of the time ... so I have some familiarity with this issue.
The various reports, commentaries and debates about the working at home issue have been all over the map. Some people think that Marissa Mayer is off her rocker, and that she is violating a basic premise of the new economy. Some think that she's simply acknowledging a basic fact - that many people who work at home are slackers, and that leaders do better when they tighten the reins, not loosen them. And plenty of people have weighed in with suggestions about how she could be a better and more effective CEO. (A lot of folks think this is just a women's issue, but I'd obviously disagree with that.)
I'm not a guy who often will urge that we cut people slack, but in this case I think giving Marissa Mayer a break makes sense - at least on the specifics of the issue. Clearly, Yahoo is a company with issues, and it seems logical to assume, based on her actions, that Mayer believes that a lack of cultural cohesion may be a key factor. I suspect that this is not a permanent change, and that Mayer needed to make a statement and move quickly to resolve issues that may be worse than many people believe.
All of which is fine. Let's cut her a break and see if she can reinvigorate Yahoo.
Where I have a problem with Mayer is in how this decision would appear to distance her concerns from those of her employees, and this may have as much to do with style as substance.
Mayer gets paid millions of dollars. When she was hired, she was pregnant with her first child. She went back to work quickly after having the baby, and has been quoted as saying that the whole work-life balance thing doesn't seem so hard. But she also reportedly had a nursery built next to her office at Yahoo headquarters, she certainly has childcare help, and so maybe she's not the best barometer of how these things work.
The problem, it seems to me, is not whether or not Yahoo employees can or should be able to work from home. The problem is yet again, we have a CEO who seems to be living on one planet, while employees live on another. I get that senior executives are going to live in bigger houses, drive nicer cars, eat better food, fly in company jets, and generally not have the same mundane concerns as people on the front lines. But it'd be nice if, while they live in different neighborhoods, if they seemed to be living and working on the same planet.
I just think it is hard to lead from afar.
We've talked about it here before. Real leaders need to understand that the people on the front lines are the folks most responsible for the success of an organization, and need to be perceived - especially in this time of maximum transparency - as being connected to their lives and concerns. And I'm not sure that Marissa Mayer has passed this test. Though, to be fair, it is early.
I would refer you to a piece from the New York Times from earlier this week, talking about how - as companies don't hire new people, don't give decent raises to current employees, cut back on health care and other benefits, and consider even greater cutbacks because of economic and political uncertainties - corporations are enjoying a kind of "golden age" of profits, up at an annualized rate of more than 20 percent since 2008, with the stock market consistently flirting with record highs. The story notes that in part this is because of improved worker productivity - though it is not like the more productive workers are seeing this reflected in their paychecks, since disposable income since 2008 has gone up an average of just 1.8 percent a year.
I'm a Capitalist. I believe in making money. But as the distance between these divergent paths continues to widen, I'm not sure it is sustainable. Or healthy.
So that's where I think the newly announced Yahoo policy seems to reflect a greater problem. It isn't about working at home. It really is about working in tandem, working toward the same goals, and working in a way where people feel like they actually are on the same team.
I'm not sure this is always the case, and I think that it is something that senior executives and boards of directors need to think about.
That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.
- KC's View: