Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Defending Marissa Mayer

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review blog, MIT Researcher Michael Schrage defends Marissa Mayer’s much-discussed decision to ban telecommuting. Mayer's decision has provoked an excellent debate, here and elsewhere, so I think it worthwhile to include another contribution.

Schrage provides a larger context:

So when Mayer decrees seven months into the job that she wants people to, you know, physically show up at work instead of telecommuting — or else — I'm pretty confident this reflects a data-driven decisionmore than a cavalier command. In all likelihood, Mayer has taken good, hard looks at Yahoo's top 250 performers and top 20 projects and come to her own conclusions about who's creating real value — and how — in her company. She knows who her best people are.

Let's be serious: if significant portions of Yahoo top performers were "stay@home" coders, testers and project management telecommuters, do people really think Mayer would arbitrarily issue edicts guaranteed to alienate them? It's possible. But that would imply Mayer hasn't learned very much about her company's best people, best performers and culture since joining last July. Most successful technical leaders I know avoid getting in the way of their best people's productivity. But what do leaders do when even very good people aren't being as productive as you want or need them to be? Challenging them to be better onsite collaborators hardly seems either unfair or irrational.

The logical inference to draw from Mayer's action is that she strongly believes Yahoo's current "stay@home" telecommuting crowd would be significantly more valuable to the company — organizationally, operationally and culturally — if they came to work. The crueler inference is that both the real and opportunity costs imposed by Yahoo's "work@homes" greatly exceeded their technical and economic contributions. My bet is that Mayer believes that "working@home" isn't working for Yahoo — in both meanings of that phrase.

Schrage concludes by emphasizing the importance of corporate culture:

Culture matters. Ultimately, turnaround CEOs have to make the very public choice around not just how best to empower people but how best to hold them accountable. I take Mayer at her word that she wants to promote the values of "collaborative opportunism" and "opportunistic collaboration" at the "new" Yahoo. That should be a leader's prerogative. I similarly don't doubt Mayer knows full well that there's no shortage of technology enabling high bandwidth, highly functional, high impact collaboration across time zones and zip codes alike. My bet is that, sooner rather than later, the truly productive/high impact employees with special needs will enjoy a locational flexibility that their lesser will not.

But, for the moment, this CEO has done what I always thought good CEOs were supposed to do: identify unproductive "business as usual" practices, declare them unacceptable and incompatible with her cultural aspirations for the firm — and then act. I completely understand why it makes so many employees unhappy. I'm sympathetic to the changes they're being told to make. But, on this issue for this company, my deeper sympathies belong to the CEO. 


David Foster said...

Michael Schrage (who I met somewhere or other, several years back) is a smart and insightful guy, and his thoughts are always worth paying attention to. But on this issue, I remain unconvinced.

The late Neptunus Lex cited a response written by another naval aviator for someone who was trying to decide whether to become an Air Force and a Navy pilot. The respondent usefully distinguished between two kinds of organizations: "homogenous and macro" versus "heterogeneous and micro." (He identified the USAF as the first kind and the Navy as the second.)

I think that business organizations, once they reach a certain level of size and complexity, need to have a fair amount of "heterogeneous and micro" within them; to facilitate the existence of multiple subcultures and ways of doing things within an overall culture and set of standards.

I suspect that the kind of executives, managers, and senior employees who would be most likely to drive innovation at Yahoo are precisely those that are most likely to object to top-down edicts, programs, and feel-good slogans.

Anonymous said...

This is just another blow to Yahoo's reputation. They might as well have set a policy that required men to work in suits and women to wear dresses. It would have been within their rights to do this, but way out of line for the industry and a step backward for the types of people they want to hire.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Let' see... they are trying to have what is basically the same policy as Facebook and Google... explain why this is a step backwards?

Charles A Pennison said...

From 1998 to 2000, I worked on a project for Chevron to design and build a polystyrene plant in China - just north of Shanghai.

People working on the project were located in China, Cananda, Europe, Ohio, California and many other states in the US. We all communicated via email and telephone. We didn't all come together until the very last phase of the project in China to actually construct the plant.

Even 10 years earlier, we would not have been able to work that way. It was the worldwide internet system that made it possible. By working via the internet, the project was able to use technical and managerial talent worldwide. The plant was designed and constructed as quickly and efficiently as any plant that I saw build prior to that time.

Yahoo is suppose to be an internet company involving the rest of us with the latest in technological advances to make our world easier and more efficient to live and work.

However, if Yahoo can't embrace the latest in employee management using internet techology, how can they expect the rest of us to embrace the new age?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Charles. I also suspect that the "offices" are little more than docking bays with an open floor plan and a "white noise" machine going. They probably don't even have phones (except via head set and the computer). My current experience in IT - the optimal is to use face to face for specific meetings and tasks where you need to see body language and don't want multi tasking happening. Also a certain amount of face to face builds rapport that you can not otherwise get. On the other hand remote is best for cranking out certain things like technical specs. Who can think in that way, in the "office"! and so many interruptions.

As for sr management not making stupid productivity killing edicts. Thanks for the belly laugh. I worked in manufacturing where we were given a 4-9's and an 8, 4-9's and an off friday schedule vs the straight 40 hours via 5 -8's. The result was that everyone worked some of their off fridays (and were delighted with the "meeting less" day in which to "get things done") and "the most productive" worked almost all of them. In addition having the optional long week ends caused the majority of people I knew to give back un-taken DAYS of vacation at years end. A very Sr manager with an office not in a manufacturing facility "couldn't get a hold of someone on a friday" (ie didn't get the person he wanted instantly) and the next day everyone knew we all were going to lose the off friday schedule. This old style manager had always hated it and made it known that salaried employees that work a 40 were slackers and these Fridays were "free vacation". So what happened next - like we'd never seen - traffic jams at the gates at exactly quitting time, difficulty having summer meetings due to all the people taking 2 weeks (in a row!!) vacation. This persisted and that old sr. manager probably never saw the effects from the executive offices. The ranks, including managers, resented it for years and after the old guy retired the schedule came back for most people (the managers decided).

Anonymous said...

The CEO has a nursery next to her office and doesn't allow workers to work from home (she is powerful enough to bring her home to the office). Stuart, is hypocracy the same policy as Google and Facebook? And if I can list a dozen companies with different policies that are more successful would that be a counter argument to Google and Facebook?

This is about one set of rules for the rulers, another for the workers. Just like the democratic leadership setting different rules for themselves and the serfs under them. I'll be damned if I ever approve of that.