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Kohen on Yahoo’s Authoritarian turn

[ 78 ] February 24, 2013 |

Ari Kohen has an excellent post today discussing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new policy prohibiting working from home:

I don’t even think about this issue from the perspective of someone who is devoted to family-friendly or feminist arguments (though these are not minor considerations by any means); for me, this is all about flexibility and productivity.

There are certainly some people who benefit from the traditional work environment and there are undoubtedly jobs where “being together” is important. But there are just as certainly some people who do faster and better work when they are in a different environment.

In my own case, there are some times when it’s absolutely critical that I’m physically present at work — either in the classroom, in my office, in a meeting. But there are other times when I benefit a great deal from being able to make use of technology and forward-thinking colleagues to work from home and participate in group work.

As an (obviously idiosyncratic) example (because my job is admittedly not a traditional office job): I’m currently involved in several collaborative research projects with other faculty members and with students. Occasionally, if our schedules allow, we’ll meet in person. More often, though, we’ll meet together on Google+ and share documents via Dropbox. It’s certainly nice to sit down together, but it’s absolutely false that doing so somehow produces better or faster work than meeting remotely.

Read the whole thing, etc. In addition to the obvious benefits for feminism and families, I would add the ecological benefits; driving is easily the most ecologically harmful activity most of us do in our day to day lives, and cutting down on commuting is one of the most obvious ways to reduce one’s environmental footprint. Kohen’s experience isn’t idiosyncratic; there’s evidence (follow the links in the second link) that flexible work arrangements and productivity gains go together. My own experience is a bit different; I don’t always find I’m more productive at home. I am occasionally prone to procrastination and time-wasting, and I often find the best way to address this problem is a change of scenery–from home to work or work to home or either to a coffee shop or the library. (Since I commute exclusively by bicycle, I suspect the productivity boost from a change of scenery may actually be a result of the 15-20 minutes of moderate exercise I get from changing location). But whatever: people respond differently to different environments distractions, the notion that taking away people’s ability to know an manage their own distractions is likely to improve productivity is transparently silly.

It’s difficult for me to interpret Yahoo’s policy shift (and resistance to workplace flexibility more broadly) as anything other than an example of the irrational authoritarian mindset (despite assurances from our libertarian friends that such a thing is logically impossible) many employers and managers implicitly adopt: the fear that someone somewhere might be getting away with something, and that surrendering any control is a loss in this battle. And having spent my life working mostly in the university setting, I see a distinct class element to this. At most universities, faculty are presumed to have maximum flexibility: aside from classes, they are mostly free to set their own schedule, declare multiple days of the week as off limits for meetings, and so on. Virtually all non-academic staff, however, are expected to do adhere to a something approximating a 9-5 schedule. This is often irrational, of course. I have a friend who has a complex and pretty high level administrative job at a university. As positions have been cut around her, she’s absorbed more duties and responsibilities, and her day-to-day tasks often overwhelm her ability to accomplish crucial long-term tasks that require uninterrupted concentration for several hours. And while according to the ideology that prevails in the university setting, the following admission is a sort of heresy: I’m confident her job is more important and quite a bit harder than mine. She’s allowed, informally, to work from home 2 days a month, a highly irregular arrangement that makes her boss nervious, and she rarely manages to get both of them in practice. On the days she actually does work from home, she’s vastly more productive than she could ever be at work, because she’s able to do the tasks her office environment render impossible (and I say this without considering the stress/time/resources saved by not commuting). As a member of the faculty class, I can take 2-3 days a week working from home if I wish, without seeking anyone’s permission, but it’s actually less important for my productivity to do that than it is for hers. As a member of the faculty class, I could declare a long block of time my “writing time”, close my office door, and for the most part not be bothered. But her boss is reluctant to give her the work from home time she needs to do her job, and HR is reluctant to craft policies that incentivize partial work from home arrangements for staff, despite the obvious and significant benefits, (in addition to the usual ones, this campus has a massive parking shortage) because at bottom the working assumption is there are employees the university is meant to control, and employees the university is meant to support, and she falls in the former group.

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  1. ploeg says:

    Part of the stated rationale is that, when Mayer came in and ordered some reviews of what Yahoo employees were doing for their paychecks, they found that many employees were pretty much skating, hardly doing any work at all (as distinguished from being merely suboptimally efficient). Which would seem to me to be a management issue (though I also recommend that remote employees make themselves as visible as possible, even if it’s only virtually visible; it’s a lot easier to let go somebody that you don’t see every day).

    Nowadays, it’s increasingly common to have a one-hour-plus commute each way, and if you’re not commuting by bus or train, you’re pretty wiped out by the time you put in any work. Even in cases where you must collaborate with others, you can do that work in one part of your week, and then do work that is better accomplished solo at home.

    • djw says:

      This reminds me of a story from long ago (dot com boom era Seattle). Someone I know had a series of short term contracts working for a variety of now long dead internet startups. In one job, he was told to report to a particularly frazzled supervisor. Said supervisor was clearly very busy and stressed out, and didn’t like to be bothered, but he managed to get him to give him a few tasks (enough to keep him busy 1-2 hours a day). He dutifully spent his 8 hours a day at his desk. Then, supervisor quit in dramatic fashion, storming out, never to return. Six weeks left on my friend’s contract. Didn’t know who to contact or report to now, and was afraid it would be discovered he was doing virtually no work these past few months. So, he played out the string for the rest of his contract, sitting at his desk and surfing the net, chatting with other employees, going to lunch, and so on.

      Point being: doing virtually no productive work at all and showing up every day are not, in many work settings, mutually exclusive.

      • ploeg says:

        Indeed. In fact, in many cases, it’s easier to skate when you come in to work every day as compared to working remotely. It’s more obvious that you need to touch base with a remote employee than it is with somebody who’s apparently doing something right in front of you. When you deal with remote colleagues, you focus more on results rather than on whether somebody’s putting in time at a desk.

    • Crackity Jones says:

      I commute by train (NJ Transit to be precise) and it takes a little over an hour. And I’m generally pretty wiped. Not as bad as when I used to drive, but a long commute is always a bear.

      • Another Halocene Human says:

        Is it a one-seat ride? I used to commute one hour MBTA. 15 minute walk to station (fun), ride first train waiting at station, find a seat and sleep all the way to South Station. 5 minute walk to work.

        But riding multiple buses is much more tiring, with all the trying to make connections, remembering to pull the bell, and the way that thing moves around taunting your inner ear.

        • Another Halocene Human says:

          Are NJT commuter trains really, really noisy or something? Because really loud noise is bad. Even if it’s constant loud announcements. Somebody ought to do something.

        • Johnny Sack says:

          It is a one seat ride. I know, first world problems, but there’s something more mentally taxing for me, in terms of sensory overload, in public transportation than just driving. I used to do PATH to NYC Subway, which, in the summer, is incredibly exhausting (the heat is awful).

    • BarrY says:

      “Part of the stated rationale is that, when Mayer came in and ordered some reviews of what Yahoo employees were doing for their paychecks, they found that many employees were pretty much skating, hardly doing any work at all”

      Which is a management issue; this suggests that those employees’ managers need to be, ah – rightsized.

  2. Jameson Quinn says:

    This is a death-spiral move for a tech company. Motivated, highly-productive people will not work in a place like that. So soon you’ll have a bunch of unmotivated slackers, and be forced to supervise them ever more closely if you want them to do anything at all. Pretty quickly you’ll be arguing to the investors that of course they should give you more money, look how many lines of code you produced last year.

    • Jon says:

      I had not realized Google has been in a death spiral for all these years. My understanding is that they basically have the same policy — as is true of most of the policies Mayer has instituted. This might be stated a bit more forcefully, but that’s because you always start that way to change the habits and then back off on enforcement rather than the other way around.

    • Jon Hendry says:

      I dunno, Apple cut down on remote work a while ago. Most of Apple’s remote workers these days are people who were moving away for some reason, and Apple felt that they were worth keeping despite the remote working.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      Motivated, highly-productive people will not work in a place like that.

      Sounds like a work force reduction strategy without layoffs or severance required.

      Of course, G-buses provide the commuting alternative that makes for mobile productivity. Apple and Genentech have programs as well.

      Unless Yahoo provides some commuting relief, I’m sure they expect people to leave. And the management will be happy to see them leave is my guess.

  3. STH says:

    Excellent post. There really is an assumption that employees who don’t have advanced degrees or high-falutin’ titles are just looking for the chance to slack off, so you have to keep an eye on them all the time. It’s really disgusting, considering the demands of many of those non-high-falutin’ jobs and how essential they are; if those employees weren’t busting their asses, you’d know immediately because everything would go to shit.

    • Another Halocene Human says:

      Yup. Although I find that any time you have multiple employees working in a group, some jackhole decides to slack off and make everyone else pick up for him. Good management recognizes this and keeps on said jackhole’s ass so he either has to at least pretend to pull his fair share all the time or he decides to find employment elsewhere… or he receives progressive discipline to firing. (Slackers can be “she”‘s too.)

      Employees can’t go off and get drunk after work and kick each other’s asses anymore, so the boss has to have a presence.

      However, the constant second-guessing, group punishment, obsession with surveillance, and bean-counting production mentality (every second you’re in the bathroom pissing is a second I’m losing money!) is just absurd. Most of them spend more time wasted than their front line workers could ever dream of.

      • Another Halocene Human says:

        Oops, I meant waste more time, as it fritter it away. All though I did once know a manager who got wasted all the time. What an example to set for the shop guys.

    • wengler says:

      Pretty much the higher you are paid, the less you are expected to be constantly doing something or at least looking busy.

      Every minimum-wage job I ever had I was expected to be doing something at every available moment.

    • Cody says:

      I think being a computer programmer/etc. at Yahoo IS a high-falutin’ job.

  4. STH says:

    Um . . . any progress on the script error issue? I’m still getting it.

  5. Crackity Jones says:

    Re several hours of uninterrupted concentration. I’m with Neal Stephenson on this. One 4 hour block and two 2 hour blocks are not equal. I generally work better when I both: know I have a solid amount of time, and know I won’t be interrupted. Sadly, that’s often unrealistic and I generally work in 45 minute blocks before interrupted for some nonsense.

  6. Jason says:

    Great post. Sadly, there are fewer than ever jobs that are like djw’s, jobs where one is given control over the shape and character of one’s work time, including the power to decide, at least to a limited extent, where one does it.

    Tenured faculty positions are on the wane, replaced by adjuncts who must commute to multiple community colleges every day to scrape by. The number of people who can support themselves through independent creative endeavor–music, writing, etc.–is less than ever for obvious reasons. The same goes for professional journalism.

    Homicide detectives and criminals will always have a degree of autonomy over where they do what they do, so that’s something.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Jason:

      Sadly, there are fewer than ever jobs that are like djw’s, jobs where one is given control over the shape and character of one’s work time, including the power to decide, at least to a limited extent, where one does it.

      Coincidentally, this NYT article was posted a few weeks ago. There are a number of people arguing with Schwarz in comments that his ideas are all very well and good, but in our current labor-hostile environment they’re not going to go very far. He claims that even senior executives are getting burnt out to the point that they want to examine the issue of overwork… but, honestly, I’ll believe it when I see some actual change.

  7. Wapiti says:

    “On the days she actually does work from home, she’s vastly more productive than she could ever be at work, because she’s able to do the tasks her office environment render impossible (and I say this without considering the stress/time/resources saved by not commuting).”

    When I was in the service, we sometimes put half of the company on “reverse-cycle training” for a couple weeks, typically when we desperately needed to get vehicles repaired. This meant half the troops would come to work at 6 pm and go home at 6 am, and spend that time fully employed fixing stuff. The people who were “working” during the day would invariably be tasked with all sorts of details we couldn’t control, and the people working at night got the important stuff done.

    Office environments and being subject to the whims of the various bosses above you will sometimes/usually/almost always conflict with completing your primary tasks.

  8. Marc says:

    While I’ve worked for many companies in the SF Bay Area, I’ve never worked for Yahoo, but I doubt it’s much of a policy shift. Allowing employees to work at home usually starts out on an ad hoc basis, an employee asks a manager to be allowed to do so, perhaps on a temporary basis. Others find out about it and make the same request. Eventually, fairly large numbers of employees are doing so, and it’s not clear in some cases what, exactly, is being done at home. I’ve seen situations in which full time employees “work” from hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away, never come in to the office, and it’s not clear what they do other than accept a pay check. So, the executives eventually crack down, particularly if the company is struggling financially and has management issues, like Yahoo. I’ve seen this happen several times at different companies.

    Let’s be honest, this is a classic Upper Middle Class Professional Problem. It’s absolutely ridiculous to see this as an “irrational authoritarian mindset”, as even in the computer industry, very few companies allow working at home on a routine basis. I’m currently employed by a major university, which allows me to work at home 2 out of 5 days a week. My commute takes 4 hours a day via public transportation, something I simply could not handle on a daily basis, and I’m not willing to move closer. If I was told tomorrow that I needed to come in 5 days a week, well, I’d have to decide whether I was willing to commute daily, ask to work part time, or try to find a job closer to home. But, I wouldn’t whine about it, I’m quite thankful that I’ve been allowed to do this at all…

    • Hogan says:

      It’s absolutely ridiculous to see this as an “irrational authoritarian mindset”, as even in the computer industry, very few companies allow working at home on a routine basis.

      Non sequitur.

      • ploeg says:

        Also not true, particularly if you work in a company with a dispersed workforce, which is becoming increasingly common. If your project includes teams in India, Ireland, Israel, and Iowa, there’s no freaking way that you’re going to work face-to-face with those people. In this case (and in other, easily imaginable cases), working from home is an accommodation that you make for your employer, not the other way around. Then you have some CEO make the asinine demand that you deal with these dispersed teams in the office, when the work can be more efficiently be done at home.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Being “quite thankful” that you’re allowed to do anything that would make your life not a living hell is a mindset that allows management to keep screwing labor over.

      • Marc says:

        In other words, a company that expects it’s high salaried professional workers, in addition to the hourly clerical and custodial staff (who rarely much flexibility), to come into work for at least the 40 hours a week they are allegedly being paid for is “screwing labor over”, are you serious? Or, do you work for a university? 8^)

        This is plain silly, if I’m told I can’t work at home in the future, I have a choice to make, accept the fact that I’ll need to spend 20 hours/week commuting, move, or find a job with a better commute. But, that’s my problem, not my employers…

        • djw says:

          if I’m told I can’t work at home in the future, I have a choice to make, accept the fact that I’ll need to spend 20 hours/week commuting, move, or find a job with a better commute. But, that’s my problem, not my employers…

          This is obviously true, as a factual matter, and to be clear, I’m not arguing here for some sort of employee right for flexible scheduling. What I’m asking is whether it’s rational for the employer to make such a demand, if you’re doing your job just fine with your current arrangement. And if the answer is no, I’m asking so many employers make such a demand, when both evidence and human decency cut against it? That your employer retains the right to make such a demand, I concede–my University could put a 40 hour a week in the office rule in my contract next year, and they’d be well within their right to do so–but I don’t see how it cuts against any argument I make in my post.

          • Marc says:

            What I’m asking is whether it’s rational for the employer to make such a demand, if you’re doing your job just fine with your current arrangement.

            That’s the thing, though, these demands usually come about when there appears to be an issue with how at least some of the employees are handling this sort of arrangement. Another cherished “right” for professionals at one of the companies I’ve worked for was bringing dogs to work. Most of the dogs were fine, and simply sat under a desk or table for the most part, but there was an occasional dog fight in the hall, and at one point a non-owner was bitten while trying to separate two dogs. The edict came down the next day, no more dogs at work. You should have heard the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and threats to quit and move to more enlightened companies, but no one actually did…

      • NBarnes says:

        A thousands times this. Marc’s a good example of internalization of the authoritarian work environment; most employers would love it if we were all so cowed.

    • djw says:

      A curious, confusing comment.

      Let’s be honest, this is a classic Upper Middle Class Professional Problem.

      Well, yes, insofar as a set of cultural assumptions about UMCP and Non-UMCPs leads employers and managers to erroneously consider UMCPs as the only group of people who might do their job without constant supervision. As a result of this, the only people for whom significant flexibility is much of an option. That such a status quo is the result of irrational and classist thinking is, in fact, my point.

      It’s absolutely ridiculous to see this as an “irrational authoritarian mindset”, as even in the computer industry, very few companies allow working at home on a routine basis.

      It’s very difficult to imagine what you think the relationship between the first and second half of this sentence is, because to me, like Hogan, it reads as a straight non sequitur.

      The story you tell in the remainder of your comment would seem to align nicely with the argument I’m making.

      1) You are afforded significant flexibility in your job to work from home much of the time (like me).

      2) This improves your quality of life, and you are grateful to have such privileges, given how rare they are in our world (like me).

      3) (Presumably) Despite this flexibility, you are able to do your job successfully (like me).

      If 1, 2 and 3 are the case, and (as the evidence gathered in the links from Lisa Belkin’s post suggest) you and I are not special and remarkable in our ability to be able to do our jobs with this kind of flexibility. Affording us this flexibility is a humane and decent thing; with salutory benefits for families and the environment. Yet it’s a rare privilege. Why is it rare? I’ve offered an explanation. If employers are keeping it rare out of fear of decreased productivity, despite the evidence to the contrary, what explains their mistake? I’m open to an explanation other than the one I suggested, but your post insists my explanation is not just wrong but absurd, without even so much as a gesture toward and alternative explanation.

      • Marc says:

        Yet it’s a rare privilege. Why is it rare?

        Well, my experience includes actually managing groups of software developers, some of whom worked at home part or all (due to location) of the time. Some handle this quite well, and likely get more done at home than when they are in the office, others were clearly doing very little at home. Part of the difficulty comes in explaining to one person why they can’t work at home, while others are allowed to. Another issue is the sort of management chaos that takes place when large ailing companies (like Yahoo) try to save themselves by reorganizing every few months, you end up with some employees who no longer have any discernable role, and if they aren’t even coming into the office, they sometimes slip through the cracks. So, it’s perhaps more understandable to me why it may be necessary to remove that sort of flexibility, at least until such time as the company is back on track.

        I’m not special in my ability to work at home, and it’s sometimes a bit of a struggle to pay attention to what I’m supposed to be doing when I’m there. But, that is the arrangement that we’ve worked out, the director of the program knows I’m unlikely to stay if I have to commute 5 days/week, and I know I may be let go if I’m not being fully productive…

        • Karen says:

          If there is a good reason to deny an employee the ability to telecommute, any manager should be able to state that reason and make it stick. That many managers are total fools who cannot state said good reason or simply don’t have any good reasons should not justify denial of telecommuting privileges to qualified employees. Management, however, always manages to punish employees for its own incompetence.

        • Mike Schilling says:

          I used to lead a team of software developers that was widely distributed geographically: both coasts of the US, Europe, and South America. It’s horribly inefficient and frustrating compared to being able to get everybody (or the right subset of everybody) around a table or in front of a whiteboard to solve a problem that’s just come up. Skype and video-conferences are cool, but they’re not the same.

          This is not just my opinion. Several times I had the opportunity to ask people who teach software development methodology how best to organize a distributed team, and the answer was invariably “don’t do that”. Distributing multiple teams geographically? Here’s how to streamline inter-team communication. Having people who need to communicate with each other constantly remote? Doesn’t work.

          Now, the fact that even with the group being scattered all over hell, my management wanted me in the office instead of at home? We can definitely talk about power games.

        • BarrY says:

          “Part of the difficulty comes in explaining to one person why they can’t work at home, while others are allowed to”

          Simple – you get the work done, I don ‘t care.

  9. Informant says:

    I’ve seen it suggested at a number of places on-line that this is really intended as a strategy to achieve a reduction in force without actually firing people — some significant number of employees will decide to voluntarily quit so they can either keep working form home for another company or find an office job closer to their residence.

  10. klondike says:

    I don’t care one whit about Yahoo, or Ms Mayer, but I do care about workers and the worker-company relationship. To me, the left-commentary on this focused strictly on defending the utility of remote-work and calling Mayer stupid for not recognizing it has seemed really obtuse. This post is no exception.

    Mayer’s move is explicit recognition that Yahoo is in an irrelevance-rut. Whether or not any particular Yahoo employee is doing a good or bad job at whatever they’re doing in the short or medium term has zero impact on Yahoo’s long-term success. I’d be willing to bet that no one on this thread uses Yahoo for anything but throwaway email addresses (as I do here) thus proving that point.

    If people want regulation that prohibits “changing the rules on the fly” to protect workers hired into remote work positions, I’m all for that. The worker-company relationship is seriously company-overweighted. If we want to incentivize remote work by tax or other policy, I’m even more for that. Remote work is good for all of us.

    But Mayer’s been hired into a position where she has very few tools and they are all blunt instruments. This policy is a blunt instrument and it’s already a huge success, imho. What Mayer’s saying is “I could burn this place to the ground and it would merely be accelerating the inevitable.” You can say that to a Business Week reporter, or you can show people with a radical policy change. She’s shown it.

    • Another Halocene Human says:

      Actually, there are policies to promote telecommuting. DC area even has telework centers where people can use an office close to their home to work instead of clogging the highways.

      As for the bait and switch on employees, the only real check on that is unions. The government defanged unions and comes down on the side of employers. Witness the forces aligned against Obama for trying to change this just a little bit.

      I agree about how this is a symptom of Yahoo’s woes. However, I completely disagree with your last paragraph. “The firings will continue until morale improves” only convinces the most flexible, shrewd, creative, capable, marketable employees to flee. It also instills fear in those who remain, making them unthinking drones who unwittingly bring your organization down even more. Nobody will be making suggestions that could improve the bottom line, and even if they do, managers scared for their jobs will shoot them down.

      • klondike says:

        You’re right about the RIF effect, but … My experience with good/smart people at/from Yahoo is that they were pretty content with Yahoo being a playground for their pet interests or a lifestyle employment gig where they were happy to be there as remotes, but would never have signed up to work there based solely on Yahoo’s prospects. Yahoo has been a nowhere company for a long time now.

        To me it looks like a no-lose for Mayer to flush all the dilettantes and’lifestyle’ employees and start over. And if you lose a bunch of good people too, so what? What they’re working on isn’t working. Suggestions to improve the bottom line aren’t going to help Yahoo – they need a business model. The no-remotes thing is a signal not that Yahoo is stripping down and going lean (so keep your head down and avoid notice) but that it’s starting over so you better be part of something we can build a Yahoo sized business out of or find another job.

        Strangely enough, I admire it.

        • BarrY says:

          ” The no-remotes thing is a signal not that Yahoo is stripping down and going lean (so keep your head down and avoid notice) but that it’s starting over so you better be part of something we can build a Yahoo sized business out of or find another job.”

          Why? I for one interpreted it that way, a very reactive, defensive and unthinking action.

  11. Another Halocene Human says:

    There’s a great resistance to results-based management, perhaps because there are so many incompetent managers out there. Since as human beings we have a cognitive bias towards promoting people who have the opposite of management skills (narcissists, cons, sociopaths), it’s not surprising you end up with people who are under pressure and scared they’re over their head (==go authoritarian) or who hold fixed beliefs that trend towards this style (NPD and social dominators tend to believe in an authoritarian style–this may be why some prefer to work under sociopathic con artists who may affect a chummier style and be more laissez faire in their management, despite the constant lying and other issues).

    When I worked in an office there were days where a lot of the discussions between colleges were of a distinctly non work-related nature. As a blue collar union steward now (whose day job requires me to BE THERE, like most blue collar jobs–what a LIE that working class people don’t work hard enough and have a bad attitude), I’ve learned how to work from home and be productive (which is a skill), how to hold meetings with an un-office and so on. (Having some sort of office helps tremendously, though, trust me.) You can’t get work done when you’re being constantly interrupted, but you can be very productive when a core group of people focused on a mutual goal get together. Sometimes at work (with shitty management) I’ve found that the people who should be working together are pulling apart so it’s no wonder productivity and morale are low.

    Yahoo as a company has a lot of problems. Not sure why the CEO thinks setting top-down policies like this makes sense rather than looking division by division and seeing if there are issues there.

    I don’t think accountants, for example, are more productive if they are in the office daily. Too many interruptions, kibbitzing, plus pressure to “look busy” at times when your body is slumping, and no real permission to wake it up. Of course, you probably have to spend some of the week at the office to confer with colleagues. Depends on the nature of the job. I worked with one lady who pretty much pored over the same kinds of receipts every day and didn’t talk to anybody, and she was damn good at it. Luckily she was tucked in a corner that didn’t have people passing by constantly and her hard persona discouraged office gabbers. She reported straight to the bossman and if she found a problem, hoo baby.

    I wonder if Yahoo wants their independent contractors and consultants to come into the office, too.

  12. Marc says:

    In academe “working at home” ends up frequently being equivalent to “not working much.” I understand the issue with distractions at work – being interrupted by colleagues or students, for example.

    But home has a lot more distractions that are less related to professional work, and it takes a lot of self-discipline to consistently put in effort in a place where no one can see what you’re doing and all motivation has to come from you alone.

    None of my productive colleagues do this routinely, and that counts a lot for me in evaluating whether that’s a good idea.

    • STH says:

      Sure, it’s a challenge, but it most certainly can be done. I’m back in school at a community college that caters to returning students like me (and is also strapped for cash). So many, many classes in my department are offered online-only, so you’re on your own and may never see the instructor at all. Mature adults can handle it, I assure you, and my fellow students and I are doing it (and often with full-time jobs and families, as well).

    • Green Caboose says:

      So as a young manager my first work-from-home (WFH) employees were around the year 1994. Internet in infancy, home connections used things like frame-relay or, worst, dial-up.

      What I – and other managers who had WFH employees and compared notes – was that it depended heavily on the employee. Most engineers got a shitload more done working from home and – even better – their detailed technical conversations were saved in emails so we had a head-start on documentation.

      There were, however, a few for whom WFH was a disaster. I would never put a recent college grad into a WFH situation, to start with. But for experienced engineers very few had problems. One I remember had 7 homeschooled kids (he was a fundamentalist) and while he did great work in the office when home he tended to get involved in the kid stuff and got nothing done. The good news with him was he volunteered that this was a problem and we found him a different situation. The only other troubles were from people who were already quasi- performance problems beforehand.

      Me, personally, I’ve been WFH for 8 years now and those have far and away been my most productive years. Yes, I travel a lot for work, but when at home I am extremely productive. It is HUGE that we selected a house with a completely separate office (above garage, no direct connection to house) as I too have homeschooled kids. I put in probably 60 hrs/wk but it’s not as bad as it sounds because a) I have no commute time (my “commute consists of walking across the garage to the door to my office), and b) I can flexibly schedule my time so that I can get stuff done at odd moments throughout the week as needed. For example, when waiting for kid at a lesson I pull out the iPad and answer the day’s work emails.

      For the company they save the costs of an office, not just the rental space but furniture, administrative help, and all the little things that go into making an office usable. For me, my quality of life is much much better. For the company, I actually put in more effective hours than would happen if I was commuting. For me, I can live in a place that I couldn’t afford if it had to be near a high tech job center. Everyone wins.

  13. Dave says:

    Yahoo? That still exists?

  14. Green Caboose says:

    It’s difficult for me to interpret Yahoo’s policy shift (and resistance to workplace flexibility more broadly) as anything other than an example of the irrational authoritarian mindset (despite assurances from our libertarian friends that such a thing is logically impossible) many employers and managers implicitly adopt:

    I read this with a sense of deja vu and a sense of sadness for Yahoo. Almost 10 years ago now I was living not far from where Yahoo is and joined another Silicon Valley company then known for its (for the time) amazing ability to function efficiently with work teams spread all over the globe. This company was the product of many mergers and simply had learned how to function with people everywhere. As such, when you expected people to be in a particular office for a particular set of time you knew to plan it in advance.

    Then, at our peak, the CEO resigned (nope, not pushed, just bored I guess) and the replacement CEO was an old school military guy. His first acts were to ban remote work except for direct-customer facing people and to shut down all but 3 main offices.

    That decision, by itself, wasn’t the sole or even primary cause of the stock plummeting to 1/20th its value and the company being sold at a fire sale to a Romney-esque private equity firm. But: a) it represented the authoritarian control mindset as mentioned above, and b) it created a number of really bad cultural norms that DID have a lot to do with the company’s near death. By putting all the executive and G&A functions in one office in Silicon Valley while all the field was remote communication between the two stopped. Before long the decision makers had no idea what the customers wanted or what the impact was to the field of their endless stream of authoritarian new policy statements. (At one point they edicted that all IM conversations would be over MSFT Lync – so that they could be recorded and monitored – and blocked all other IM. Not realizing that on customer deployments literally 50 or more people from multiple companies would commonly share Yahoo IM or Skype to communicate during maintenance windows.) By the end the CFO was literally strangling the company with her edicts and demands to approve every minor purchase herself.

    Today, under the PE firm, that old policy is gone. We have other problems, but we are slowly learning how to work in a distributed personnel world again.

    As for this last bit:

    the fear that someone somewhere might be getting away with something, and that surrendering any control is a loss in this battle.

    I’ve often thought that the fundamental definition of a conservative is someone who has a deep, fundamental fear that someone, somewhere, is having more fun than he is.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      the fundamental definition of a conservative is someone who has a deep, fundamental fear that someone, somewhere, is having more fun less miserably unfulfilled than he is.

      FTFY

    • Dave says:

      For values of ‘conservative’ which = ‘puritanical, authoritarian, asshole’. Which is most, but not all, of them. I find it best to keep words separate, otherwise you end up in that place where everything becomes a synonym for ‘people I don’t like’.

  15. CGDH says:

    Does the new policy really prohibit working from home? I was under the impression that it was just eliminating the practice of permanent remote offices — as in, your team is based in New York, but you live in Florida and you telecommute and touch base in person once or twice a year.

    • djw says:

      Perhaps not entirely fair, but the linked post offers the following as a rhetorical question:

      “Employers are not trying to oppress workers. Why would they?”

      And seems to imply that there are no plausible reasons to think any employer restrictions on employees come from any source other than economic rationality.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        seems to imply that there are no plausible reasons to think any employer restrictions on employees come from any source other than economic rationality.

        I think having stories about how you had success oppressing your greatly in need of oppressing workforce helps to maximize the ROI for your National Review cruise.

        So it’s definitely economically rationalized, efficient market driven behavior. Even better at a reduced lower price.

        You try it – having fun on a National Review cruise without being able to keep up with the Jones, and the Goldbergs, and the Funds.

  16. BW says:

    There are good arguments to be made for both sides here; among other things, I can see how work-from-home can rapidly spiral into an issue of first- and second-class citizens. When some employees in a tech company (like engineers and senior management) are given free rein to work from home and the peons are expected to be lashed to their desks, already you’ve got a potentially toxic situation, especially if there’s a feeling that those with the privilege are not being optimally productive.

    That said…let’s not forget that Mayer may be the most overrated exec working in tech today. Everything I’ve read/heard about her suggests she has little actual business intuition and is simply an optimization fanatic. (Cf Doug Bowman, Apple’s chief designer, bailing on Google because Mayer’s only concern was whether his designs had the “correct” number of pixels in the border and the exactly “correct” shade of blue, as determined by A/B testing.) Data-driven decision making is important in business, but it can’t be the ONLY thing that should go into making decisions, and Mayer seems incapable of realizing that.

  17. Anonymouse says:

    Actually, eating red meat and cheese are the most ecologically harmful thing you do on a daily basis. Chicken farms may also be harmful, depending on how the waste is handled. While people respond more positively to environmental arguments, the real issues are feminist ones.

    That said, I have a feeling that this is a smokescreen to lay people off with minimal litigation.

    http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html

    • Anonymouse says:

      …and I mean litigation from shareholders, not employees. Mass layoffs of this scale would lead to all sorts of crazy litigation, no?

      • Jon Hendry says:

        They’ve already laid off thousands.

        I can’t imagine the number of remote workers who would find new jobs instead of working on-site, either because of necessity or preference, would be more than a hundred, and probably far less than that.

  18. Jon Hendry says:

    One thing to note is that academia, even in the sciences, is not exactly a fast-moving environment, so the ability to be effective working remotely in academia is pretty much irrelevant. Given how common it is to collaborate with people at other institutions, working remotely is practically built in to the system.

    One argument for people in technology not working remotely is the idea of serendipitous interactions, the sort of unplanned interactions that happen in a workplace, when you hear a conversation in the next cubicle, or join a conversation in the hall as you walk down it.

    In theory, that could happen if you’re included on an email discussion. But then you have to be following it, and reading it, which is more of a cognitive load than being in your cube working and hearing a statement that brings up in your mind a better solution, or you know that your coworkers are about to make a huge mistake, that sort of thing.

    Another argument against remote working is that, frankly, empty cubicles and offices, especially large numbers of them, are a huge morale killer when you’re working for a company, especially a company in difficulties that has been laying people off.

  19. LosGatosCA says:

    I’ve worked in Silicon Valley or for Silicon Valley companies/start ups for several decades.

    I have never been introduced to a 40 hour week or been forced to work a 9-5 work schedule.

    Commuting schedule allowances (7-3:30 for East Bay commuters) have been routine since before I arrived.

    On one job, I traveled so much I came into the office after 2-3 months MIA and was given a printer and told my desk was given to someone who would use it and I should work from home. Keep in touch on email and know the office schedule so I could attend the monthly mandatory meeting.

    This Yahoo thing is a staff trimming and possibly job/employee evaluation opportunity under another name.

  20. Occam's Edge says:

    Isn’t the simpler answer is that Yahoo is really conducting a stealth reduction in force by forcing people to quit because they cannot comply with the new work requirements. I suspect that many of Yahoo’s remote workers live too far away to come into the office every day. Yahoo’s financial numbers aren’t great and this is a way to improve them in the short term.

    • Losgatosca says:

      Yes. They have come to the conclusion that they are overstuffed and this is a quick way to weed out the less committed and the less visible contributors.

      If there are any people making a significant contribution who require an accommodation it will be made. Count on it.

    • Jon H says:

      There’s no point in a stealth rif when big layoffs have been announced and happened, more are expected, and the company is known to be troubled and trying to get its act together.

      Companies like Microsoft have reason to do stealth reductions. Not Yahoo.

      • Rhino says:

        Besides, wouldn’t it constitute constructive dismissal in court?

      • LosGatosCA says:

        The terms voluntary vs involuntary termination are very different on the financial and morale levels.

        Letting the next wave self-select with virtually no financial cost is pretty attractive even if you plan subsequent waves of involuntary termination, and in fact can mitigate the involuntary rounds,

        Morale can be impacted differently as well. The people who don’t leave are going to be more committed to the new program – the less committed people left because they could not commit for whatever reason. That doesn’t mean you haven’t lost talented, committed people or that some that stay do so because they have accurately assessed the market for their skills (not strong).

        There are other ways companies have the same impact on staff. Cut product development programs and reassign engineers/staff to another program. The folks with a career wrapped up in the technology for the cut program are going to think hard about their options, many may leave. Changing company values or objectives will also signal, intentionally or not, that employees need to reassess their situation. Reorganizing gets new bosses with different styles. Folks leave with every change. If the pace of change and workforce composition move quickly enough, that will minimize outplacement/severance costs and keep morale up.

        A good leader (have no idea if Yahoo fits or not) will arrange the dance steps so that when the transformational music stops the professional workforce will be more productive with a better working rhythm and focus to match the challenges and the individuals and teams will naturally support the values required to meet the organizational objectives. The danger of course is that you lose your more talented folks early in the process and with it much of your intellectual horsepower. You can be doomed if that happens,

        Announcing arbitrary work rule changes does not fit the bill for reasonable change. But if there have been widespread examples of lack of discipline or accountability and demonstrated public metrics for certain products, functions, or processes are not being met, then reining in the managers and their teams is pretty standard stuff that needs to be done.

        As a counter-example, Intuit is an example of a pretty dispersed workforce / decentralized organization built from acquisitions where this type of move would crush their culture.

        • LosGatosCA says:

          The ‘no financial cost’ could depend on what the current vs new conditions are and what the conditions were when the employee started their position.

          If the change is you work in the office 5 days not just 3 each week, the company may be under no obligation to do anything for an employee that can’t deal with that change. Especially if they once were working 5 days at the office in the same position.

          OTOH, if you work for the Fairfield, CT office out of Boca Raton, FL and always have since you took the position, then being mandated to report 5 days a week in Fairfield, CT would seem to lead to other financial terms on involuntary termination. IANAL, so I have no idea what the expected differences would amount to. It could still be completely at the discretion of the employer.

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