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Life as a Yahoo!, from Gulliver’s Travels to Mayer’s Travails

May 7, 2013

In Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, the Yahoo!s are a degraded band of humanoids kept tethered in stalls by their equine captors.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO, recently banned telecommuting for her humanoids, and the tethering of C21st Yahoo!s to their desks in the company’s offices has created much debate on management and leadership of today’s digitally enabled workforce.

Her egregious work here or leave dictat was perhaps overly blunt, but the news triggered a broader discussion about how !much freedom workers should be given to decide where to spend their working hours.

The news of Mayer’s ban on telecommuting surfaced in the form of a memo to employees leaked to All Things D, a tech-industry blog, and unleashed a frenzied debate in the blogosphere. Supporters saw it as the brave act of a boss determined to rid the company of slackers. Critics lambasted the firm for an antediluvian attitude towards the workplace.

That Mayer should want to extract some more value from the humanoids she leads is clear – Google’s workers each generate $931k revenue, 160% more than the $354k produced by each of Yahoo!’s employees. And it is also reasonable for a company to want to discourage its employees from behaving like freelancers, after all, firms exist largely because people are more productive together than apart.

However, plenty of evidence suggests that letting folks telecommute is good for productivity. It allows them to use their time more efficiently and to spend more time with their families and less fuming in traffic jams or squashed on trains. The anti-Mayer reaction however, seems to have focused solely on employee productivity and ‘modern management’, and not considered two equally important elements of successful businesses – creating the right culture, and employee engagement.

Telecommuting can reduce company costs, Cisco claimed it saved $277m in 2009 by allowing its people to work from home, and a growing body of evidence suggests it helps productivity, too. A recent study by academics at Stanford University and the University of Beijing reports the results of an experiment at CTrip, an online travel company quoted NASDAQ.

The firm split some of its call-centre workers into two teams. One team worked at home for nine months; the other in the company’s offices. At the end of the period, the research found the telecommuters had handled calls more efficiently, taken fewer breaks and had been 13% more productive than their peers. Job satisfaction was also much higher among the homeworkers.

Hardly surprising, since a lot of people don’t seem to work while they are at work: In 2012 J.C. Penney discovered that a third of its headquarters’ bandwidth was taken up by employees watching YouTube videos.

As someone who has worked in professional services and IT companies for 25 years, I have mixed feelings about working from home. Most problems and the big questions are resolved by small groups of people in a room working together in a huddle, they create a buzz and energise each other. In my experience, people that join in meetings on Skype tend to get distracted and are not fully engaged, and then ignored by the people in the room.

To contradict this, when I do work from home, I am undoubtedly more personally productive – I reckon it equates to 15-20 more hours a week. Add to that the time saved commuting and talking to the dog instead – we’re talking about significant savings and being more energised.

However, home working requires self-discipline on the part of the employee, a quality that’s become endangered in this age of distractions. That fridge looks tempting. Again, to counter this, given that many technology firms produce the devices and software that make working from home a breeze, it seems sensible to let their employees use them.

Why then, has Mayer put telecommuting on hold at Yahoo!? The leaked memo said the habit has slowed the firm down and made it harder to have serendipitous meetings that can give birth to new ideas. Yet plenty of innovative technology firms move fast while allowing some people to work from home. You can shackle a Yahoo! to her desk, but you can’t make her feel the buzz.

Organisations by definition are groups of people and working from home dilutes that dynamic. I think it’s possible to have a productive workforce that works from home but my point is that it is much harder to create the same buzz and culture of a winning team despite all the technology that we have at our disposal these days.

All this in a week when two of my clients changed their homeworking policy – one called time and recalled everyone back into the office, citing the need for face-time, creating a culture, greater collaboration and serendipity – ‘stuff happens’; the other company introduced a new home working policy. They took counter views on the impact of productivity.

There are also a number of workplace culture concerns that inevitably come with telecommuting territory. The C20th paternalistic ‘command and control’ environment is most certainly not the answer, but maybe Mayer got it right – you can’t fix a broken culture when people aren’t in the office together.

She has faced a great deal of criticism for her decision to end remote working despite the fact that many at the company acknowledged it was a big issue.  When an entire company’s struggling and needs to change its culture, you need their physical presence.

Camaraderie is built by working together. You wouldn’t have a rugby team and have the forwards and the backs working in separate gyms on their fitness or tactics. They might be fitter or better at their own drills, but they wouldn’t know how to work together. No one would argue that they would rather not have their best people in close proximity to their colleagues and all working together.

It’s also a mistake to focus on what’s being taken away. Mayer’s actually giving people something: the chance to help save the company. She wants the people who are truly committed, her best people, all in the same place at the same time helping to transform the company. It’s a call to arms: All Hands On Deck! Collaborate and connect to improve our business.

People are said to shape and share the organisation culture, yet at the same time they define the organisation culture. Derived from the Latin word colere – to build, to care for, to cultivate. Culture consists of various factors that are shared by a group that acts as an interpretive frame of behaviour.

There is a wealth of research and study on organisation culture, a few standouts relevant to this debate include:

– Hofstede identified five dimensions of culture, including individualism v collectivism, and the impact this has in terms of values people look after their own interest and not the organisation’s well-being.

– Deal & Kennedy identified culture as the way things are done around here, which is a great way of defining a practical view of the day-to-day role culture has on an organisation.

– Gerry Johnson described a ‘Cultural Web’, identifying a number of elements that influence culture, from the paradigm (organisation purpose and values), control systems (processes to monitor what is going on) through to structure (reporting lines and the way work flows through the business) to symbols, myths and rituals which convey the messages about what is valued within the organisation.

Of relevance to the Yahoo! debate, and for me the most relevant research on culture, comes from Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. They reduced culture to two dimensions: sociability and solidarity: Solidarity is the degree to which people think together in the same ways, sharing tasks and mutual interests; sociability comes from mutual esteem and concern for one’s colleagues.

This captures the essence of an organisation being a tribe, a collection of people being together, for the common cause.

In bringing remote workers back into Yahoo!’s offices, Mayer took a page out of her former employer’s book – Google, where the corporate culture is much envied. The perks many Googlers cite as their favourites like free food are very office-centric, and you don’t see working from home on the list.

Google CFO Patrick Pichette laid out the company’s thoughts on the debate with a fairly direct response: How many people telecommute at Google?’ Our answer is: As few as possible. Googlers can work wherever they want, but are strongly encouraged to commute to an office. As for the rationale, Pichette responded: There is something magical about sharing meals, there is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking face-to-face ‘What do you think of this?’ These are the magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of our company, of your own personal development and building much stronger communities. 

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer, it’s each to their own and what works. If you do opt for telecommuting, I like practical steps outlined by Bob Kelleher in his book Louder Than Words. For example:

Link high engagement to high performance Don’t confuse engagement with satisfaction. The last thing you want is a team of satisfied but underperforming people. Kelleher defines engagement as the unlocking of employee potential to drive high performance. Set and reinforce high performance goals, ensure there is no’ ‘softening’ of expectations.

Engage team leaders first Studies show that if a team leader is disengaged, his/her employees are four times more likely to be disengaged themselves. Telecommuting creates a new dimension to the team leaders role, so ensure they are fully engaged themselves.

Focus on communication at all levels If you neglect to articulate a clear vision of the future, expect only a minimum of energy to make it happen. Successful leaders provide robust communication, built on clarity, consistency, and repetition. It always amazed me as a leader how many repetitions were required before everyone heard the message – with everyone in the office. With a dispersed organisation, communication is more vital then ever.

As Ian Hutchinson points out in his book People Glue, employee engagement is an investment we make for the future of our organisation’s productivity and performance. Most employees know what they don’t want, fewer know what they really do want. Is telecommuting the answer for uplifting engagement, and thus performance?

As far as engagement goes, the fish always rots from the head. Leaders need to be the catalyst to improving productivity and performance, but they can’t if their teams are not first engaged. Human relationships are the central nervous system of any organisation and being connected is key.

Maximizing team engagement and building a winning, team oriented culture are key to capturing that extra discretionary effort that separates winning businesses from losing ones. Individual talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships, as the saying goes. The strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each member is the team.

On balance, I think I’m with Mayer on this one, I’m a social person and like to have people around me. Organisations exist only for one purpose: to help people reach ends together that they couldn’t achieve individually. As Henry Ford said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress, working together is success.

For me, the output of being together outweighs the upsides of telecommuting. Whilst I see the potential benefits for the individual, cost savings for the business and the availability of highly scalable technology, I’ve concluded that humans are simply too limited to function outside of a simple tribal setting. Facebook can’t replace face time.

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