Signs of Triviality

Opinions, mostly my own, on the importance of being and other things.
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Yahoo!'s "Must Not Work From Home" Mistake


Polar Bears in Trondheim Marissa Mayer's decision to mandate that Yahoos no longer work from home is a big mistake. I'm surprised (and happy) to see how much attention this topic has gotten in the media, but most coverage leaves me frustrated and aggrevated because it repeats a number of grave mistakes and reinforces misconceptions.

The email that was sent out, makes three notable statements:

  1. "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."
  2. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
  3. "And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."

The first makes the point that working physically close together allows for serendipitous interactions that spark ideas and builds team-spirit. So far, so good. I believe there's a lot to this. Sometimes it is easier to solve a problem in person and sometimes great ideas are coming together after a chat at the watercooler or coffee bar. (More realistically, though, those great ideas are hatched at an alcohol-fueled get-together outside of work, but let's just pretend that's the same as "being at work".)

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. But as the second and third point make blatantly clear, that is really not the primary motivation[1]. The real motivation is a mistrust on behalf of management in their employees. Yet the truth of the second statement appears to be universally accepted, and not only by the usual blowhards: people who work from home are only quote working end-quote (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?).

Having worked for many years exclusviely remotely and knowing many of Yahoo!'s best engineers who have done the same, I find this notion insulting and condescending. It shows a fundamental lack of trust in your employees, something which I had always valued when I was working at Yahoo!: at the time, I was being treated like an adult, able (and trusted) to make my own decisions as to when and how I might work. No more. This complete lack of trust in your employees is further emphasized in the last point above, and it is this turnaround in company culture is what makes me sad, even after having left Yahoo! over a year ago.

It is also worth noting that this decision to require people to report to an office may be based on flawed data. TechCrunch reported today that Marrisa Mayer state:

"We've checked and some people who work from home haven't even logged into the VPN..."

Let this sink in: at some point during her first few months, Marissa Mayer asked her staff whether or not people who are not physically in an office are actually "working". (This alone shows, again, insecure and poor management practices.) I imagine when asked how one might be able to verify that somebody is "working", the clear and obvious answer was "Oh, they must be connecting to the vee-pee-en, whatever that is!"

Now let us also put aside the fact that many people (including myself) are most productive when not actually online, when we have uninterrupted time without any distractions[2]. If the data was collected by looking at VPN logs, then it is missing a good 70-80% of the engineering staff who, at my time at Yahoo!, anyway, were connecting using ssh proxies exclusively.

David Filo and Jerry YangOne size does not fit all, and certainly not over 14 thousand employees in dozens of offices all over the globe. Some teams may benefit from close physical proximity; some employees may not be good at working from home; in some cases, the company and local teams may have to help make remote work work. Why not trust your managers to actually know and trust their employees, to do their job and enable their employees to work in whatever way is best? I suppose she doesn't trust them...


[1] I used to work for Yahoo! from NYC, where there is an office. There was nobody in that office who I was working with. It sounds as if today I would be required to go to that office, not because I would have these amazing creative moments there, but... because I would be in an office and hence be working.

On that note: if you do not live near an office, you will have to relocate. Does Yahoo! pay for that?

[2] Whenever I visited the Sunnyvale campus, I always wondered how anybody ever got any work done with all the constant interruptions in the office. People stop by to chat, to ask you questions, to get a coffee, to go for a walk, to get lunch, to play foosball, and to go to meetings (which we all know is the opposite of actually getting work done). See also: Jason Fried's Why work doesn't happen at work TED talk.

Polar Bears in Trondheim picture via eirikref on Flickr

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