Yahoo Marissa Mayer

Marissa-MayerYahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is getting heat for her decision to require workers come this summer to work in the office rather than at home. The decision has been called draconian, a step backward, and much worse.

Vivia Chen wrote on the news story a couple of times in The Careerist blog, quoting research that shows that working at home increases productivity and efficiency but has a negative impact on promotion. She argues that for lawyers and many others who work in solitude, we should be left at home to bill away but need to go into the office to brown-nose up the ladder.

Let’s unpack.

Everyone knew Ms. Mayer was hired to stop and reverse the steady downward spiral of Yahoo. As evidence of the good work she is doing, the previously-tanking stock price has grown over 35% and employment applications are skyrocketing since she took over last summer. There was no Monday morning quarterbacking about Ms. Mayer’s decisions to offer free lunches in the cafeteria, cell phones to the employees, or to remove the company stock price from the intranet home page, all designed to create a new, more successful, corporate culture. Why all this ruckus when she decided to change work arrangements for 200 out of the 14,000 employees? One more question: would we have this—or any—uproar if Mayer instead had laid off 200 employees as a cost-saving measure?

What seems to be missing from the dialogue is an acknowledgement that not all work is equal and some is dependent on time and place. I disagree with the New York Times op-ed piece that proclaimed that “many if not most American jobs could successfully be performed at home.” There are scores of jobs that cannot successfully be performed at home. For example, health care workers, fire and police personnel, elementary and secondary teachers, manufacturing workers, restaurant and retail workers, construction workers…and on and on.

And don’t you think if the Yahoo! jobs were being successfully performed at home, Ms. Mayer would have left the policy in place and moved on to her many other items on the turnaround to do list? It seems more likely that the policy was put into place not to punish productive employees but to curb abuses. Or perhaps the reason was, as the Yahoo HR memo stated, to improve communication and collaboration.

Ignoring the stated goals, Mayer’s critics insist that working from home results in greater productivity and efficiency. Maybe. But productivity and efficiency aren’t what Marissa Mayer is going for at Yahoo! She wants creativity and collaboration. (No one would argue that productivity or efficiency was an appropriate goal for Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of Sistine chapel or another creative endeavor.)

The Stanford and Beijing University study of a Chinese travel agency cited to support the proposition that working at home increases productivity and efficiency cannot be applied to all kinds of work, including legal work. The authors of that study noted that the work of the call center employees did not require teamwork or “in person face time” and performance was easily quantified and evaluated, the link between effort and performance was direct and could be monitored due to the extensive database of performance.

I suspect few lawyers would describe their work in such a way. Even if writing briefs or drafting contracts or other discreet tasks can be performed outside the office, I would argue that performance is greatly enhanced when we engage collaboratively with diverse-thinking and smart colleagues. We need to be innovative and creative as we apply the law in rapidly-changing circumstances affecting our clients and society. Sometimes the synergy of face to face meetings results in greater wisdom and perspectives to bear on a problem, leading to better outcomes for our clients. And let’s not forget, better outcomes for our clients should be the determining touchstone of the propriety of work arrangements.

At the same time, there is an inevitable mentoring and professional development dynamic that occurs with these interactions that hone inter-personal skills, empathy, and networking skills. These are the types of skills that don’t get developed by sitting alone at a kitchen table or behind a computer. In fact, the authors of the Chinese travel agency study noted that a possible explanation for the negative impact on promotions experienced by the work at home workers is that employees who work from home lack opportunities to develop the interpersonal skills to succeed in managerial jobs.

All work is not the same. Let’s hope workers and management both recognize the nuances and make decisions accordingly.

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