Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer: It’s Her Right To Be Wrong

Yahoo! CEO’s new “No Work From Home Policy” is Coming Under Fire.  It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

Late last week, Yahoo’s head of Human Resources sent an email to all employees outlining a new policy in which any employee with a work-from-home arrangement will now be required to work in a Yahoo office.  (see full employee email here thanks to Kara Swisher of All Things Digital).  Many, such as Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post, have quickly pointed out that this new policy is a major step backward and that she expected more from Mayer, the youngest woman ever to lead a Fortune 500 company, who has already disappointed many parents with her choice (emphasis mine) to take a maternity leave measured in days, not months.

Check out all these Yahoo employees not talking to each other, but at least they're in the office

Check out all these Yahoo employees not talking to each other, but at least they’re in the office

I think it’s very easy to quickly deride this new policy as “out of touch” and it is quite fascinating for a technology company to make such a bold statement that the same technology they need to be successful isn’t sufficient enough for employees to use to communicate and collaborate.  I have trouble getting my head around that.  However, I believe there are some positives – or at least I could build a case for Mayer in making these moves — though I believe ultimately she’s been undone by poor communications.

Let’s be clear about a few things first:

  • This is Mayer’s show and she’s been empowered by the Board and investors to do whatever she thinks necessary to turn Yahoo around.  You can argue many things about this new policy, but there’s something to be said for her making a change she feels is correct, especially knowing it may undo some of the more morale boosting changes she’s made like free lunch.  I would imagine her Board and big investors have no problem at all with her showing an ability to make tough decisions (except naming her child).  She’s working without a net (unlike at Google)– she turns around Yahoo or she doesn’t and she’s done.
  • It’s quite possible that a company like Yahoo, mired in mediocrity for years, has a real issue with employees taking advantage of work-from-home policies  (see this article by Business Insider), so while drastic and I believe taken too far, inside Yahoo there may be some real momentum for this type of change.  Mayer obviously must be fine if people quit over the new policy and perhaps Yahoo believes this is an easier and more cost effective path to rid themselves of poor performers than actually trying to manage them out.
  • Contrary to the data, based on my experience, I’m not completely convinced that work-from-home policies are as effective as people think they are.  It’s completely dependent on the person, their performance, their manager and role.  I worked on one team of maybe 30-40 people where it was a ghost town on Fridays at work.  Sure, while I was more productive at some level since the office was quiet, and the people at home would say they were more productive, I find it hard to believe we were collectively more productive. And, let’s not forget the joy of waiting for everyone to join a conference call.

Now let’s look at how Yahoo’s communications misses it’s mark:

  • The email contains the following sentence,

“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.”

What the what?  Are you kidding me?  You just completely shifted gears from a “no work from home” to attacking all flex time.  They are COMPLETELY different things.  Now, you’re “attacking” your good and high performers.  Everyone will have a reason to work from home from time to time and the large majority are doing so for completely legitimate reasons – doctors appointments, signing a home mortgage, picking up a sick kid from school, etc. etc.  You can’t tell a few thousand people to “use their best judgment” — you need to provide clear direction and you need to use a real example like a doctor’s appointment, not the cable guy (who I’m actually waiting for as I write this).

You could have said this:

“And for the rest of us who occasionally have to be away from the office to attend to important personal matters, please note that Yahoo understands and respects the fact that there are some things that need to happen outside our offices during normal business hours.  To the best of your ability, if events can be scheduled, please aim to do so at times when your team is less likely to need you, and of course, always consult with your manager.”

  • Speaking of managers — that’s the huge miss to me with this communication – the lack of discussion of managers being accountable for their teams and performance.  I managed a team of 15 people and the first thing I would say is “I don’t care where you get your work done, just get it done and do it well.”  Of course, it’s an over-statement since I did care if people abused it, but I was trying to emphasize that what mattered was performance (including collaboration) and that I was accountable to my boss for the performance of individuals and all of us as a team. Good managers understand each of their reports and the best way to get their best performance – Mayer has effectively taken away a huge lever for managers to run their teams.  My only guess is that Yahoo must have an even bigger manager issue than a work-from-home issue, but at the least their communications should have discussed the role of managers at the company.
  • Where’s the empathy?  Whether or not you’re ok with people quitting over this new policy, they are still your employees and they’re still people.  If you make a policy move that changes peoples’ lives, the least you can do is acknowledge it.
  • Where’s the strategy?  How does this really tie back to what you’re trying to accomplish and the difficult position Yahoo is currently in? Don’t assume everyone employee understands.  Make it make sense for them.  Cafeteria and hallway conversations isn’t a rationale, it’s cliché.
  • And the final miss – and perhaps I’m allowing my former life as an employee communications executive to creep in – Mayer needed to send the message herself and not dump it on the head of HR.  This wasn’t HR’s decision, this came straight from the top and it’s all about the culture.  Mayer can’t just announce free lunch and iPhone for all – she needs to stand out front on the not-so-fun stuff too.  This note needed context on manager accountability, her strategy and real language about change.  This message ultimately isn’t for the work-from-home employees, it was for everyone else who want to be proud to work at Yahoo.  Mayer had to know there would be backlash and she dilutes my first point above about courage by not having any and pushing this on HR.  My guess (though I’m almost sure I’m right) is that she didn’t want to receive employee complaints directly into her email inbox.  Much better to receive a summarized powerpoint from the head of HR whose inbox likely exploded.
Yahoo CEO Marisa Mayer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Mayer had a chance to make this work with some transparent language and opening a real conversation with employees and managers.  She missed.

My bet is that Mayer lets the current work-from-home crowd at Yahoo! weed itself out in June and by the end of 2013 amends the policy slightly with something about “manager discretion” — just enough wiggle room to make the issue go away.

That’s not exactly leadership.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr/Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Frank Gruber

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