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.