Marissa Mayer Should Bridge Distance Gap with Remote Workers

Marissa Mayer's decision to bring work-at-home Yahoo! employees back to the office has set off a firestorm. Lakshmi Ramarajan writes on how to mitigate the problem.
by Lakshmi Ramarajan

Marissa Mayer's decision to ask Yahoo! employees to work from offices rather than at home has at least two potentially negative consequences, one for her and one for her employees. But she can mitigate both by linking personal and professional identity for herself and her workers.

First, Mayer should begin sharing a broader personal narrative with employees to stem the female stereotyping and backlash that followed her controversial announcement. Some of the negative reaction is based on expectations of how Mayer, as a female-CEO-with- children, should relate to offsite workers, who are largely assumed to be working mothers, too. The argument goes that either Mayer should support her "own kind" or that she is not a "real" working mother because she is a wealthy CEO who has built her own nursery next to her office. Both these arguments judge her based on only two of the many categories to which she belongs.

One way Mayer can break down the stereotyping is to make clear that there's a lot more to her life's story than being a mom and CEO. She could tell us about unique elements of her upbringing or experiences that have made her who she is—the daughter of a Finnish-American artist and an engineer father, a Midwesterner, and an accomplished engineer in her own right. This personalization alone could help get others past their simplistic thinking about her. And if she can genuinely connect her broader personal narrative to her aspirations for making Yahoo! a cutting-edge company again, that would be even better.

Second, Mayer should begin thinking about the organizational fallout from her decision. Some observers suggest that she may simply want many people who work from home to leave Yahoo!—a decision that tars all remote workers with the same brush. According to this way of thinking, Mayer has assumed that the personal lives and identities of her work-at-home employees are uniformly at odds with her corporate goals. Yet there is certainly some subset of remote workers who are talented and productive, along with a subset of on-site workers who are not talented and productive but see themselves solely as Yahoo! employees.

In today's tight job market, some of the remote workers will comply with Mayer's new policy, but many of the productive ones in that group, especially those attracted by the firm's former flexibility, will now feel alienated from the organization and may leave. The lack of policies to support employees' personal lives in this new model, such as high-quality on-site day care, also has negative consequences. Remote workers who may have been willing to trade flexibility for other forms of personal support are now likely to leave or stay and struggle with the new requirement. And prospective employees who may have been willing to work on site but don't want to sacrifice their personal lives are likely to look for a job elsewhere. Together, these responses may mean that Yahoo! will be full of ex-remote workers who don't want to be there. This will do nothing to remedy the productivity and collaboration problem Mayer says she's facing in the ultra-competitive high tech industry.

My research suggests that people who feel conflicted about their identities (parent vs. employee) are probably going to be less open and less collaborative with their colleagues and less committed to the organization. To alleviate that tension, Mayer must refrain from stereotyping her remote workers as all bad and her on-site workers as all good. Rather, she has to figure out how to support the personal lives, aspirations, and identities of all her high-performing employees.

Mayer could also investigate the resources, behaviors, and relationships that enable remote workers to be successful and try to promote and institutionalize them. However, if she wants a new type of Yahoo! employee, one more inclined to physically being at work, she should provide greater support for high-performing employees' demands at home rather than assume that simply being on-site in means being productive. These responses won't help every person affected, but generating collective solutions would help workers understand that these issues are organizational and not being left to individual families to work out on their own.

It's now up to Mayer to show employees threatened by her new policy that belonging to "one Yahoo!", as she put it, will not mean that they have to give up their non-work identities and become "only Yahoo!"

    • Anonymous
    For years women have enjoyed the benefit that they had to "care" for their family and thereby get benefits that men could never get (something no one points out when they point out salary differences).
    Women have been able to get benefits that men would be laughed out of a job if they asked for them. While a man might be asked to travel 80% of the time, you rarely see women in that position (although they want the same salary). Mom can attend the ballet recital, but dad misses the baseball game.
    Women, I find, are much more willing to leave work at work than men are. Why? Because they can afford it, our society has crowned them with "family caretaker", whether they are or not. A worker, male or female, has to put the company in the right place and priority.
    • Anonymous
    This is much ado about nothing IMHO, I believe the true motive for Yahoo's disowning the remote workeforce is to effect a further reduction in headcount without coming out and announcing yet again that Yahoo is reducing head count. This method has the benefit of removing the arguably less efficient without severance or significant increase in UI costs. And, if the premise of this article is correct it removes some of the most expensive individuals to insure (women of childbearing age) from the payroll/insurance roll.
    • Anonymous
    It is a mistake in this day and age to assume that most remote workers, particularly at a company such as Yahoo!, are female and/or caring for children. If Mayer feels that remote workers are damaging the Yahoo! corporate culture that is more a sign of bad management rather than failings of the remote employees. A good manager will look at the real requirements of the position, rather than traditions, past practice, or what happens to be convenient, when setting policies such as this. If there are true performance issues among the remote workforce that should be addressed through the performance management process.
    • Anonymous
    The change in policy seems to reflect a lack of trust and transparency between the organization's leadership and the remote workers. While so many talk about this as a women's issue, I think the focus is really on what it takes to build a solid high performance organizational culture. I am not sure anyone has really figured out how to effectively build a strong and trusting culture when many of the people in the organization are not participants in the day to day experience of the culture. Some of the most succeessful companies that demonstrate clear values and strong cultural norms can trust their employees more and then work at home is less threatening. Perhaps Ms. Mayer has a longer term culture building plan that, once established, can once again tolerate the absence of people in daily contact.
    My company has been honored as a Best Company to Work For by Fortune magazine for 9 years and our culture is firmly defined and strong. That allows us to manage and integrate "at home" workers because there is a strong foundation of trust. Let's see if Ms Mayer can get the culture of trust and innovation she needs instead of decalring that she is decalring a war on women.
    • Judy
    • Sr. IT Manager
    Marissa Mayer pushed a wrong button. The decision is poorly made because:
    1. It tries to address a problem by addressing one of the minor symptoms
    2. Because of the fact that it's addressing a minor symptom, it can NOT possibly be effective in the overall attempt to increase productivity. And yet, the negative image this decision projects back to the company is huge - far outweigh the minor benefits it brings

    I am a female manager with 2 young kids. To do my job, I do feel that coming to the office works better - face-to-face communication is more effective for me.
    However, I do NOT believe that everyone has to work in the office to be productive. I have worked with work-from-home employees who are far more productive than others who work in the office.

    Whether or not a person is productive is largely dependent on his/her personality and skill level. Where s/he works from makes a difference in some cases. But if we put it in the context productivity in a large organization, it is minor.

    I completely agree that perfromance problems should be dealt with by an effective performance management process. Making a blind call to dictate where people should work from is odd.
    • Anonymous
    A number of reports indicate that Mayer made her decision after reviewing the utilization of VPN by remote workers. (See for example the coverage.) To Mayer's eyes, the usage data indicated that remote staff simply weren't putting in enough hours, which seemed to comport with anecdotal evidence.

    VPN usage isn't a perfect proxy for productivity, but it's certainly a useful indicator for a CEO to consider.
    • Brad Hildt
    • Principal, Essex Consulting Group
    Ms. Mayer was poorly advised in the way this ultimatum was rolled out. HR bears responsibility.
    • Anonymous
    My comments here reflect my personal thoughts. I should also add that I myself have a Ph.D. Nonetheless, am I only the one who is amused by Harvard professors commenting on a decision of a CEO of a company in the private sector, when they themselves have never had the responsibility for profitability? Also, many of the responders -- here and elsewhere -- are making their comments based on their personal beliefs and needs. The fact that you have a "need" does not mean that your employer has to accommodate it (unless, of course, the law requires it). Managing a remote workforce is, in fact, both difficult and time consuming. I would assume that Yahoo has the infrastructure to do it, but many other companies may not have the infrastructure and/or may not be able to afford it at the present time. Yet "working remotely" is constantly begin "promoted" as a definite "positive" good. Finally
    , the professor suggests that Mayer could "also investigate the resources, behaviors, and relationships that enable remote workers to be successful...." When? In her "spare" time? Perhaps the professor is suggesting that Mayer should hire consultants -- Harvard professors??? -- to do this research?
    • Dr Ramanand Yadav
    • Assistant Professor, Indian Maritime University
    The corporate practices are innovating and oraganisations and employees, both, are benefiting from these diversity oriented practices. Mayor may constitute a committee to suggest measures for supporting employees working from home/ virtual workplace. However, in case of certain type of responsibilities and for certain segment of workforce, implementation of "one Yahoo!"should follow education and support to the target workforce.
    • Anonymous
    We, like the industry, seem to me to be focused on the political / social issue, which is hugely important in terms of its message but doesn't address the vision that Mayer has for Yahoo. What strikes me is the ineptness of the way the decision was handled. Whether we assume she was 'right' or 'wrong' based on our personal decisions is important. That she probably burned up a huge amount of goodwill from her own people and the industry is also important and seems a poor first step for a new CEO.
    • Julia
    • IT Project Manager
    I read that the majority of Yahoo employees called back to the office on average, only worked from home ONCE a week! This is a control issue and a trust issue, not a productivity issue. I work full time and go into the office once a week. I manage a team of about 10 -- in 5 different locations. It can work if you manage your team well, keep tabs on their acomplishments, and put a little work into developing strong team dynamics. My organization is clear that working from home is not a right and not a substitute for a babysitter. And in the vast majority of cases, including my own, we work longer hours with better quality and faster response time, and with very little extraneous chatter. When I go in to the office, I lose time commuting, socializing, and wasting time, only to end up on conference calls I could have taken at home. All that talk around the water cooler is not work! Let's not say we're improving productivity b
    ecause there are "butts in chairs." This is backward thinking.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Before enforcing such across-the-board changes in working systems, it is prudent to examine why these are necessitated. We do have assignments where remote operation is as productive as by working in the office. It is possible to find out whether or not an individual is delivering the results. We have also to remember that all in-office employees do not deliver optimally.
    Disturbing the good ones who work from outside the office is going to throw bad signals and many may leave.
    Genuine hardship faced by women by commuting to office thus ignoring their children is also a factor which needs to weigh while arriving at such decisions.
    In my view, case-by- case actions can be planned keeping the company's overall objective- good productivity- in focus.
    • Anonymous
    • CEO
    The author's assumption, that most of Yahoo's remote workers were women, desperate for work-life balance, is both patronizing and antiquated. Today, large businesses make these decisions based on enlightened self-interest, cost analysis and global necessity. The fact that a sizeable minority of Yahoo's remote workforce was not even bothering to sign on to their computers during the day is a reflection of poor management within the bricks-and-mortar. Yes, by all means cull the herd, but Ms. Mayer's focus needs to be on educating the leaders and managers of Yahoo's remote workforce, not on yanking individual contributors around.