Meet the new boss

There’s been a welcome workplace trend in recent years towards “telecommuting,” whereby employees can work from home. In what's called a “Results Only Work Environment" employees are evaluated only on their performance not their presence at work. Some studies show it increases productivity—and presumably workers achieve better work-life balance and reduce their carbon footprint. Reed Hastings the founder of Netflix now calls face-time requirements “a relic of the industrial age.”

But wait! After taking over as Yahoo CEO (while expecting a baby), Marissa Mayer recently stunned the business world by demanding that her employees begin working from the office starting June 1. There were immediate howls of betrayal from telecommuting moms nationwide who expected more family-friendly policies from an enlightened ex-Google executive and new mom. I've already read three critiques that reference the famous line from The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

There has even been speculation that this was a stealth layoff to purge payroll at the under-performing company!

Yet there’s a strong case to be made that innovation flourishes when there is at least some face-to-face collaboration (even with those who prefer to work alone). Certainly among a company’s leaders and key contributors. (Apple execs, for instance, always meet eyeball-to-eyeball every Monday morning.)

But Bill Davidow at the Atlantic backs Mayer’s edict for a better reason: to create a winning culture. This, he says, consists of “determination, discipline, teamwork, commitment, belief that you can overcome adversity”—which Yahoo currently lacks. (Read it here.) In other words, if Yahoo were rocking and rolling, of course they should give moms (and pops) a break and let them work from anywhere, as long as they do their job. It’s a win-win-win (if you include environmental benefits). But that isn’t the case here. Yahoo’s in trouble long-term. Without a cultural renewal there won’t be Yahoo employees working anywhere.

But, damn, it’s a lot more fun to be cynical, isn’t it? (And any time is a good time to break out “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”—a great track from The Who’s greatest album—especially in vinyl.) Yet after Yahoo has churned through four CEOs in two years, I'm here to tell you Marissa Mayer really IS a new boss.

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  1. I'm an old-fashioned sort of cove myself (e.g. I still use the word 'cove') and I think this has got very little to do with the merits and de-merits of working from home.

    I think this is about poor management that has let things slide and has used home-working as an excuse. So now, both the genuine and the shirkers will all be on the end of a big public gesture that's really intended to kick-start the shirkers.

    I have a report who works from home some of the time and I myself have to make various visits which mean I'm only in the offfice 2 or sometimes 3 days a week, which may or may not coincide with my boss. But we have certain meetings that are sacrosanct and we have a culture of accountability that glues us together. Where we work and what time we do it don't really matter; holding each other accountable up and down the line do.

    I predict that in 12 months time we'll be hearing that Yahoo! has re-instated home-working but with better 'controls' i.e. day-to-day management has been told to get it's act together.

  2. Another reason I'll go hungry before I ever take another job.

    I don't know the culture or their goals, so I can't comment specifically, but it seems it would make more sense to can the shirkers without punishing those who are delivering.

    But that would require upper management to understand what middle management is really doing, and for middle management to understand what front line managers are doing, and for front line managers to actually know who is working and who is shirking.

    And if that was happening, they wouldn't be eating CEOs like candy.

    We've created our own ROWE. Every prospect's favorite question is "What's your hourly rate for X, Y, and Z?" and we say "We don't sell hours, we sell outcomes." If I can deliver in 15 minutes because I'm brilliant, I don't see why I should be punished with an hourly rate (or with wasting a whole day at the "office" pretending to be busy, when I've already solved the only problem that matters this week, which used to happen far too often.)

  3. Mark, you may be right. We'll see how this shakes out. I too would not be surprised if they eventually relax the "work from the office" policy but only if/when Yahoo turns things around. Mayer may see bigger problems ahead for Yahoo than even the business pundits do, thus warranting an immediate shake-up.

    Joel, Mayer probably feels they don't have the luxury of time to figure out who should be working from home and who shouldn't. I'm guessing that this change is an urgent "all hands on deck" move.

    And the next Pete Townshend song to apply to Yahoo should be "Who Are You." If they could answer THAT question in Sunnyvale, they'd be on the road back.

  4. And of course hypocrite Mayer immediately installed a 1 million dollar nursery next to her office, something none of her recent-mom employees can do!

  5. Yeah, the optics of that are pretty bad. Maybe she set up the nursery before she realized she had to kick the table over. I bet they're shaking their heads at Google.

  6. After watching several interviews of Mayer it’s now obvious to me she’s a savvy people manager — with real world experience of building a successful culture. Of course she has a tougher challenge here than she had last time around because this isn’t starting from scratch with 20 hackers and a “disregard for the impossible.” There’s a LOT of organizational unlearning that has to occur — along with some turnover — thus the work-at-the-office policy. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, and others, have recently come to her defense. But they don’t need to.

  7. Joel, lots of folks still think Mayer is making a BIG mistake. For instance, a Boston Globe columnist wrote last week that Mayer is insulting our intelligence with the new policy — and being a hypocrite for not letting other mothers be with their kids. But IF Mayer thinks the company is in even worse danger than we do, she’d be remiss in her obligations to shareholders not to do EVERYTHING in her power to right the ship ASAP. Hell, if she had the time she could let an employee team solicit input from the workforce and figure out the best way to do this (perhaps by requiring everyone to be in the office just on certain days, at certain times, for real-time, eyeball to eyeball collaboration). But maybe Mayer doesn’t have the luxury of time.

    Meanwhile she’s getting pilloried for not being a better role model for working mothers. Unfortunately she’s not getting paid for that. She was brought in to rescue a company that, I suspect, is on life support, with much at stake for investors (which includes working moms who have their pensions invested in Yahoo and other companies) AND for those 11,500 folks who make their living working at Yahoo.

    1. Triage can be ugly. If she sees internal bleeding others don't, her decisions would indeed appear rash.

      You've piqued my interest, John.

      What's your opinion? Do you think she's making the tough, but right, call?

  8. Well of course I'm not in the cockpit looking at the instrument panel, but if she's as savvy a pilot as I think she is (and she was a critical player in the Google success story) she wouldn't be pissing off her workforce (and half the working moms in North America) unless emergency measures were needed. So...yeah I think she's making the right call. But I've been wrong at least a dozen times in my life.

  9. The nice thing about having my own blog is that if I'm wrong about all this, the discussion thread can magically disappear.

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