In Defense of Remote work (and Marissa Mayer)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marrisa Mayer decreed that working from home would be banned at the company. In a company memo she wrote:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so 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.

Any unilateral decision by an executive about how creative people work is a mistake. To presume to know what is best for hundreds of professional adults is to make yourself a parent, and make your employees children. The most talented employees who prefer autonomy will leave. The less talented and more dependent employees will stay.

Smart, motivated professionals will always be the best judge of what tools, methods and work habits will result in their best performance. However they are obligated to perform well. The employer’s obligation is to give employees a landscape that enables them to do their best work, and feedback about how they’re doing. If they’re not performing up to a standard, a CEO or an executive has every right to critique, criticize or take action.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home” is a criticism I doubt she has data for, but it might be true at Yahoo. Not all remote work plans are managed well. It depends how good a job Yahoo does of integrating remote workers in with the fold. I don’t know if she looked at how companies that are 100% distributed do it and what Yahoo could do better. I doubt it. If she did she’d realize remote work as a concept is probably not the problem.

The best action for leaders is to focus on performance problems, not tools or benefits. “We are not working up to the standard we need to meet” would be a perfectly fine criticism. She could have asked employees to better justify their choices “We have data that suggests many remote workers are abusing their privileges”, and target the abuse rather than remote work itself. This would both put the focus on performance, and let employees reconsider choices on their own.

In Mayer’s defense, she is the CEO and knows more about what’s going on in her company than we do. We’re on the outside looking in. A shock to the system might be precisely what Yahoo needs and targeting remote work was a specific way to get her message of “wake up and shape up” heard loudly. There are reports of remote work abuse, but it’s hard to know if this is more than what’s typical at any large company. Who knows what the real problems are or what her real agenda is. Step one of forcing an issue, getting attention and raising debate has been played well by her. Remote work may very well be something that returns to Yahoo in the future after whatever problem she’s focused on has been solved.

Also see: Grand summary of best posts on Yahoo and Remote work

12 Responses to “In Defense of Remote work (and Marissa Mayer)”

  1. Aaron Hockley

    I’ve worked both for companies that have the occasional remote workers (a team of 6-8 might have 1-2 remote workers) as well as for organizations set up for distributed teams, where a team of 8 might have folks in 8 different cities.

    The latter was far more successful as a work environment than the former, because remote work was the “usual” way of working. When the remote worker is an exception, it requires exceptional processes, tools, and technologies to fully integrate that worker as part of the team. Scott Hanselman has a great breakdown of how this works for him at Microsoft. It’s not easy. It can work with the right people, but there’s always that challenge where the remote person is the “different” one.

    Companies that have embraced and support a distributed workforce, such as Automattic or my former employer, have processes and tools in place that make the remote worker the “regular” worker and enable communication and collaboration regardless of geography.

    I don’t know Yahoo’s scenario, but if most folks were at the corporate office and only a few were remote, it’s not unbelievable that those employees might present some challenges. One solution is to invest time and technology in better integrating those folks with the rest of the company. Another solution is to eliminate the situation.

    1. Scott

      I agree it’s easier if remote work is the standard.

      But that said, Mayer could have easily articulated this. She could have offered to Team managers the choice of experimenting with “remote centric” teams. But none of that nuance is reflected in her comments so far.

      Mostly I’m left with giving Mayer the benefit of the doubt as there must be so much more to this than we are privy to.

      1. Phil Simon

        A decision like this at a high-profile company invites scrutiny. That’s for sure.

      2. Javier

        Let me first clarify my bias: after leading and building dispersed teams for about 10 years, and being myself remote to everybody in those teams, I normally say to my fellows when asked for advice that any setting that is not having the entire team in the same room (or at least building) should be treated as a dispersed team setting. Tools and work practices should be adopted based on that premise. But as Scott mentions in his post, employees are not children. They can find the process and tool they need when they need it. An experienced lead is there to make that process less cumbersome, not to act as a parent.
        Having said that, I don’t see in Mayer’s memo any shadow of a nuance. She may be after something different, it’s true, and this can be an “I’m in command” message, but I cannot find a way to think about this message as a conversation starter with a group of adult employees, willing to succeed and do their best. If your employees are not adults willing to do their best to succeed you’re doomed anyway.

  2. Lynn Cherny

    My comments come from 2 places: being a (former) UX designer and manager, and being a (current) data scientist/developer. The job you have, and your deliverables, have a huge amount to do with how successful remote work can be. A UI designer can virtually never be remote successfully (unless, as you both say, it’s the norm). There are too many relationships to build, requirements to ferret out, meetings to get people on the same page, drawings on whiteboards and paper involved… And presumably the same thing goes for much managerial work involving teams, goals, visions, etc., which may be where Mayer is biased.

    BUT: Developers and other people who need to work hard on deliverables without distraction, who need quiet, who have tools on their own machines, who have a well-defined task to do — they get a lot more done from home, IME. I know I do now. But it depends on how well-defined the problem is, how good the relationships with stakeholders are, etc, even for developers. In some cases I’ve lost clients who were remote simply because (I think) I wasn’t there to speak at the right meeting, or even to know there was a meeting.

    Finally: There’s probably an inverse relationship between efficiency and innovation, as was pointed out by Ron Burt in a recent keynote at CSCW. You’re either foaming around coming up with new crazy ideas, or you’re making stuff. What are they being evaluated for, and are they all being evaluated for the same thing? Seems super unlikely.


  3. Louis Maatman

    Having been on the inside now for 9 months I don’t think Marissa Mayer made this decision without some good thought. It would be nice to know if this decision is coming from a general belief that employees being in the office is better for the company or if this is a Yahoo specific issue she’s trying to solve.

    This a tweet she posted on february 4th:
    Nice! Climbing the charts… Yahoo is #8 on Best Places to Work in America! … and we’re hiring!

    Now, this puzzles me. After all #8 is more than good and I guess should reflect in the work that is being done at Yahoo. And shouldn’t she be worried about good people leaving the company to be able to stay where they are instead of having to relocate with their families?

    Lets see what happens, she might have started a trend.

  4. Todd Berkun

    The debate seems to be on whether or not remote working is the best way to go. You can make your own judgement, but Scott Berkun’s best point here is that he doesn’t like how the message is being conveyed. People don’t like to be told by management what that they should or shouldn’t do. The critique of Mayer’s mandate is more of a reflection of how she said it than what she said. To ask an entire team of employees to do exactly as you say does not cultivate creativity, it cultivates conformity.

  5. Sean Crawford

    We have all known, or read about, people who intellectually know what good staff meeting behaviour is, yet they are unable to bring themselves to have good meetings. Perhaps, similarly, there are people who are unable to do distributed work.

  6. Peter Watts

    Finding myself conflicted on this. On the one hand I agree that this CEO undoubtedly knows best her own business. At the same time though I see this as a harsh autocratic edict that attempts to shoe-horn employees back into the mid-90’s

    It sends a very destructive message that will be manna to the legions of poor leaders out there who believe management-by-presence is the only way

  7. Andrew Armour

    I think some make this debate very simplistic. The point is surely that ‘working in isolation leads to disappointment’. Some may feel they can collaborate brilliantly through social media, phone conferences and large periods alone. But the point Meyer (and others such as Douglas Conakry for example) is that the casual, interruptive and informal personal and 121 channels are the most powerful.

    Perhaps, dictating how and where people work may appear draconian but I can fully understand why Yahoo may be looking to encourage more personal connecting, conversation and coffee over conference calls, shared folders, email and status updates.

    As Carlos Santana said in an interview last week ‘true collaboration is about complementing what others are saying’ – and I think that’s a lot richer when done face to face as the rule – rather than the exception…



  8. craig sullivan

    Very interesting comments – thank you.

    I’ve had the experience of gluing together project teams involving people in 33 countries over the last 5 years. I don’t agree with Melissa – as like others who have commented here said – you will find a way that works for you using tools, comms and glue to wire the team together, despite their disparate locations.

    The mindset of the manager or leader is vital – as trust in the team and their work is something that isn’t measured by checking the VPN logs. If you’re doing that to work out whether people are slacking or not – then you’re not connected in the right way to what’s going on.

    I have also found countless times that trusting my team and allowing them flexibility in their work patterns, if honestly done, is more than returned in the quality and commitment to their performance. I trust people and help them to manage their goals without micro managing or being prescriptive about their time or location. In return, I know they’ll go the extra mile for me when I need their help – there is a core and level reciprocity principle at work here.

    Managing people’s performance when it’s lower than what you (or they) want is another discussion. Knowing what’s happening with your team (remote or not) is vital to do the former.

    So – a couple of concrete examples of tools that helped:

    Pivotal Tracker : This is a development tool which glues together email, mobile, tasks, stories,assets, discussions, updates – wonderfully. The best agile management tool that works brilliantly with remote teams. You can all sit and shuffle items in real time collaboratively but the product brings people and micro conversations into play all the time – and that’s the design win for me. : This product hasn’t failed once. In 3 years of use. It’s a screen sharing tool and requires no subscription or registration. It’s completely free. It also works with every IT security setup I’ve seen – so is reliable. The viewers don’t need to install any software and it takes about 30 seconds for all parties to be up and running. That’s the critical thing. When you have that thought on the phone “It would be a lot easier to show this to this person” then you can.

    Stickies : There are various services (I’m working on a list) like Conceptshare, for example, that allow you to take designs, mockups, prototypes and put them on a virtual board. People can then comment, argue, challenge and scrawl comments or scribbles on them. It’s like having a design up in the office – it invites critique and allows the manager to interact with people remotely and collate/act on the feedback. Really useful tools here.

    For me, this is a cultural question of great significance. You can get great work out of globally spread teams if you have the right mindset, work culture, tools and trust levels. Mayer may have them in the office but not in their hearts.


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