Last week Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer had her HR department issue a ban on working from home. This provoked a lot of commentary in the media, much of which was negative. Issues of work-life balance and young parents were raised, along with the many studies showing that telecommuting can be productive. So why the decision?
I think the reasons are quite obvious. Yahoo is not a thriving business or even a stable business. It is a large company struggling to remake itself. Mayer was parachuted in after a succession of disastrous years in which Yahoo shed market share and profits. The company had lost focus, was not adjusting to a disruptive set of changes in the Web world, and needed to change, quickly. The heart of the business was web search, but Yahoo had lost ground to Google and needed to rely more heavily on content to bring people to its pages. Much of that content was and is staff-originated, and was not doing what it needed to do: draw Web traffic.
Bringing workers back into the office allows Mayer and her staff to refocus the business. This kind of change needs both direction from management, and clear feedback and input from workers. If you want the change to happen quickly (and Yahoo surely needs quick change to survive), there are very real benefits to having everyone “in the room” every day. Ideas can be discussed and debated, refined and focussed much faster in the kind of spontaneous face-to-face conversations that happen in an office setting. As strategies are identified and accepted, the procedures and processes to implement them can be worked out and assigned. This kind of rapid “prototyping” of plans, followed by actual implementation, training, testing, and refinement, just does not work as quickly in a telecommuting environment.
An analogy is a company with remote, branch offices. Every company I know of in this situation conducts week-to-week communications with those offices via telephone or video conferencing. But they also gather key players in one place a few times a year to have direct discussions, because experience has shown them that such face-to-face sessions (usually a mix of formal meetings and informal gatherings) allows for faster information flows and better communication of both “where do we go next?” thinking and the identification of problems in existing systems.
What Mayer has decided is to take the infrequent meetings to an extreme: get everyone together, all the time, for as long as it takes to change the direction of the business. I don’t think the ban on working from home will be permanent; I do think it will need to be kept in place long enough for Yahoo to show positive change over a number of business quarters.
How does this relate to a small business? If your business is successful and growing, allowing some telecommuting is a positive thing. Sparing staff the time (often long, these days) needed to get to and from the workplace can, with the right people, definitely enhance productivity.
On the other hand, if your business (and the industry it is in) is in a period of sharp change that requires the business to change, telecommuting can be an obstacle to quick decision making and the implementing of new ideas, policies, and processes. In those circumstances, it may be necessary to cut back on telecommuting for some or all staff, until you are comfortable that your business has made the right changes and is moving forward again.
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