Saturday, March 2, 2013

Marissa Mayer Provokes a National Debate on Telecommuting

Thanks to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, America is having a grand national discussion about telecommuting. I’ve been following it on this blog and I am happy to see that, after an initial spasm of feminist outrage, more sober and thoughtful minds are prevailing. Better yet, people have not been dividing on party lines.

Yesterday on the Atlantic site Ann-Marie Slaughter offered her own assessment. It is good to read her opinion. You will recall that Princeton Professor Slaughter resigned from an important job at the State Department because her frequent, extended absences were hurting her children.

Her job required physical presence and she couldn’t be in two places at the same time.

Since Slaughter was heading the office of policy planning at the State Department, her analysis of Mayer’s new policy has a special credibility.

Slaughter begins with a point I have also emphasized:

Marissa Mayer is a CEO first and a woman second. Indeed, she is a role model for many precisely because she made it to the top job. And as a CEO, her first job is to save her company. If she fails in that, the employees she is insisting come in to the office will have no jobs to come in to.

Because it is impossible to form even a preliminary judgment about a new policy without knowing what incited it, Slaughter explains the situation at Yahoo:

Let's look at this decision a different way. According to one ex-"Yahoo" (the way Yahoo employees describe themselves, which may be one thing that needs to change) who was quoted in Business Insider,"For what it's worth, I support the no working from home rule. There's a ton of abuse of that at Yahoo. Something specific to the company."

The source also said Yahoo's large remote workforce led to "people slacking off like crazy, not being available, and spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo! projects."

It happens that Mayer had tried other softer approaches to changing the Yahoo culture. When the failed she was forced to try a new policy. Slaughter renders it with an excellent analogy: when your ship is going down, all hands should be on deck.

In Slaughter’s words:

Another source who spoke to Kara Swisher at All Things D reported that Mayer had tried the carrot approach by offering free food and iPhones (!) at work, but was getting nowhere, as she saw Yahoo employees coming in later and leaving earlier than employees at other Silicon Valley competitors.

Any leader who has had to transform a company or an institution understands that culture change is essential. People have to think differently about their jobs and their employers before they will do their jobs differently. Moreover, when a ship is going down, it is not unreasonable to demand all hands on deck. Mayer tried to go with the existing telecommuting policy, which apparently works elsewhere in Silicon Valley, but concluded that it was contributing to the culture that she needed to change. That does not mean she will not return to that policy if and when Yahoo! recovers. 

In the last analysis, as I have been stating, the market will decide whether or not her now policy works:

So let's withhold judgment for a while and let Marissa Mayer do her job. Let's evaluate her on whether she can turn Yahoo around. If her instincts are right, and she has to bring everyone back together on site to get the company going in a profitable and sustainable direction, then we will have to adjust our perceptions of when telecommuting makes sense and when it may not. If results really improve, then we have a much harder time convincing the many employers who are afraid of deeply flexible policies to change. If Mayer is wrong, then we will have time enough to dissect the reasons why, and Mayer herself will join the numerous ranks of former Yahoo CEOs.

So far, so good.

Also advancing the discussion is Todd Essig at Forbes. Yes, warm bodies around the water cooler matter, but people who are present also participate in workplace rituals. These rituals matters because they produce group identity and group cohesion.

In Essig’s terms, physical presence creates “experiential capital.” He means that each individual needs to experience the fact that his work belongs to a larger group. His job becomes meaningful when he feels that it contributes to the good of an enterprise.

In his words:

However much people use their screen-relations as a transition to direct experience, time together is still the shared experiential capital from which we grow our capacity for screen-relations. Being bodies together is still bedrock. And while Yahoo’s new policy has been a lightening-rod for criticism, what Mayer’s critics seem to forget (including here at Forbeswhere the decision has been called an “epic fail”  that goes “back to the stone age”) is that sometimes an organization needs to invest in the additional experiential capital only acquired from being bodies together.

Later in his column he states his point more incisively:

 When managers also show up it helps breed group cohesion.  And there’s more. We know that attitudes often change so as to be made consistent with what one has already done (the traditional concept of “cognitive dissonance” as pioneered by Leon Festinger). If it takes more work to get to work then for those able to avoid rebellious resentment—either from their own reslience or the presence of emotionally attuned good-enough management—it is likely their attitude will shift towards a greater commitment to the company. That’s right: commitment follows effort.

Essig compares it the family dinner. If meals are merely a way to nourish your body, it seems to make little difference whether you eat alone or as part of a specified ritual including other family members.

Regular family dinners promote family stability and security.

In Essig’s words:

Lets look at an example of the power of time together that would hit especially close to home for working mothers. Consider families that take a break from their screen-relations to have dinner together, the “Family Meal” Laurie David has been championing. We know from a 2010 study in theJournal of Family Psychology that ”families with teenagers may enhance parent–child communication and ultimately promote healthy adolescent development by making family dinner a priority.” Another 2010 study this time from theJournal of Adolescence shows the converse: fewer family dinners is correlated with a bunch of problematic adolescent behaviors (“substance-use and running away for females; drinking, physical violence, property-destruction, stealing and running away for males”).


Dennis said...

No manager worth the title is going to go into an organization and start to change things right away unless there is something wrong, really wrong. As I stated before, good for her.
I am a little surprised that so many people, who I would think know better, attacked her without knowing the environment of Yahoo and the reasons, but that does seem to be how we do things.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

You're right, of course. Too many people, especially zealots, attack before they think. I am heartened to see that, as the debate develops, more sensible voice are making themselves heard and moving things in a more positive direction.

David Foster said...

"Mayer had tried the carrot approach by offering free food and iPhones (!) at work, but was getting nowhere, as she saw Yahoo employees coming in later and leaving earlier than employees at other Silicon Valley competitors."

No, no, no, no, no! benefits such as free food & iPhones may have some marginal effect on employee commitment, but this is not the major factor, any more than fancy new buildings are. What matters most is the belief that the company is intelligently led, that it has a future, that performance is rewarded, that there is reasonable autonomy to do one's job in one's own way, that top management genuinely cares rather than just playing a short-term game for their own benefit, that top management is interested in seeing the actual realities of the business rather than blindly applying some paradigm from a prior job.

Overemphasizing the importance of the perks is similar to the thinking of the people Glenn Reynolds has talked about who confuse the benefits of middle-classness (houses, college degrees) with being causes of middle-classness.

Sam L. said...

Oooooohhhhh. People have opinions, and sometimes preconceived notions, spring-loaded to be fired by hair triggers. (I give you...trolls. Happily, not often found in these parts.) Anonymity encourages those dogs to bark when the opportunity arises.

Lastango said...

Indeed, the firestorm of criticism aimed at Mayer and Yahoo seems politically motivated, coming from redistributionists who want society to confer ever more benefits on everyone. In some cases the agenda is specific. Feminists, for instance, have identified "family-friendly" initiatives as a strategic key to women reaching and retaining more positions of power -- with the rest of us paying for it.

I too welcome the more rational input from people who understand how business works, and admire their courage in speaking out. They know there's a good chance they're going to be attacked by the thug-Left. The progressives don't care much about what happens at Yahoo!... they care much more about having one of their platforms called into question in such a public way, and they're pulling out all the stops to shut this problem down.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

In regard to David's point, surely it matters mightily that the company is intelligently led.

Mayer's problem was turning around a dysfunctional culture. I can understand why perks would not do it, but if they can't then it seems to me that a more radical intervention seems to have been required. We are dealing with the question of how to break a bad habit, especially a bad habit that has become ingrained in a culture. I cannot imagine anyone's doing it by hiring a better leadership team.