RIP WFH: Yahoo! calls time on home working

Beleaguered internet firm Yahoo! surprised many on Friday when it announced an end to working from home in the company.

In a memo widely leaked by disgruntled employees, Yahoo!’s Head of HR Jackie Reses explained:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

What does this mean?

While it’s thought only a few hundred customer service reps are based entirely at home, the change in policy affects a great many more who work part of the time from home, and even asks those who take an occasional day to wait in for a repair or delivery to reconsider.

Yahoo! employees have until June this year to relocate, quit or get on board with the new policy.

The move prompted a lot of discussion online, particularly amongst intranet and digital workplace practitioners, who for years now have strived to ensure work is what you do, not where you go.

The tech world has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to flexible working, with startups pioneering flexible work arrangements and being early adopters of digital workplace tools. As we noted last year, this has now become mainstream, with acceptance of home-based working powered by the digital workplace growing in even fairly traditional sectors such as government and financial services.

Once one of the most innovative startups around, Yahoo! is said to have lost its edge in recent years. In an attempt to regain that momentum,last summer they brought in former Google exec Marissa Mayer. She quickly sought to bring Yahoo!’s perks and culture up to date with those elsewhere in Silicon Valley, giving employees free meals and iPhones, and bringing in weekly open meetings.

All of which makes the decision to pull the plug on home working even harder to understand. If an internet company – with digital native employees, great technology and connectivity – can’t make home-working a success, what hope has anyone else?

Flexible working is the future

As digital workplace practitioners ourselves – all four of us work from home all or part of the time – we were particularly surprised by the news. Cloud technology, tablet computing, high speed broadband access make working from home as efficient as office-based activity. Add into the equation that home-based workers are happier, require less costly company-provided office space and have a vastly reduced commuter carbon footprints makes the edict from Yahoo! feel a terribly retrograde move.

It certainly puts Yahoo! well out of step with prevailing industry trends. In this year’s Digital Workplace Trends report, Jane McConnell found over a third of organisations considered mobility to be their highest investment priority for the year ahead – something that looks set to continue to grow in future years.

In his book The Digital Workplace: How Technology Is Liberating Work, intranet entrepreneur Paul Miller argues “Physical place will become less and less central to work itself. What will be transformational will be the new geography of work: the Digital Workplace where we will spend more and more time, working in entirely new ways, with richer, more immersive tools.”

Growing numbers of organisations are already finding the digital workplace delivers cost savings, more engaged employees, reduced environmental impact, and scores of other benefits besides, without a loss in productivity.

Yahoo! needs to tread carefully

However, Yahoo! are not alone in failing to realise these benefits. A survey of 400 businesses and 2,000 workers published last week  by communications giant O2 found that staff were willing to embrace new ways of working, but they were not being supported by their employers.

O2 business director Ben Dowd said: “Just six months since Britain’s biggest flexible working opportunity, the Olympics, it’s shocking that less than one fifth of people feel they are encouraged to work flexibly. Businesses must sit up and take notice of this critical evolution in employee behaviour and create a business culture equipped to support it. Talking about it simply isn’t enough. To create a truly flexible working culture, actions speak louder than words.”

Yahoo!’s actions suggest their business culture is badly out of step with modern ways of working, and hardly suggests they’re at the cutting edge of web technology. With more employees considering flexible working an essential part of their overall pay and benefits package, some have suggested Yahoo! are making themselves an unattractive prospect to prospective hires and investors alike.

There are 17 comments

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  1. Neil

    I think we have to distinguish between working from home and flexible working/mobility.

    Some people who are home-based (working from home only) will have to face the reality that they will eventually be called out to “show results”. Not a surprise for me.
    Sounds like this is what Yahoo is doing and perhaps an easy way to reduce head count (voluntarily).

    I still maintain that companies who trust their employees will be able to move to a more flexible workplace (hot desking, remote working, …) and will understand that “work is what I do, not where I go”

    • @sharonodea

      There is a difference between full-time home working, and flexible (place-independent) working where people work from the location most appropriate to the task at hand. What’s especially strange about Yahoo’s decision is that it cracks down on both.

      I can understand if a company wants to improve its working practices by having more face-to-face contact – perhaps they don’t have their digital workplace ducks in a row just yet (which is odd for an internet company, but nonetheless…). But calling time on ALL forms of flexible working, as they have done, seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      Like you, I can only assume it’s a move designed to encourage headcount reduction. This could come back to bite them in the medium-term though, as their competitors are able to offer modern flexible working practices as a means of attracting the best talent.

      As you say, enlightened companies have been doing this for years. At least some form of flexible working (eg the odd day here and there, supported by the right tools) is fast becoming the norm in the majority of desk jobs, with more formal, regular working from home arrangements being supported by a sizable minority even in sectors like mine, who’d have considered it impossible just five years ago.

      So this feels painfully out of step with the modern workplace, and especially so in a tech industry. Could it be that Yahoo doesn’t trust its employees? What does that say about their company culture?

  2. Andrew Wright

    I read somewhere (by a Yahoo insider!) that one of the reasons for the change in policy was that it was generally thought that the people working from home were not productive and that this was a good way to get rid of them. If that’s the case, then it seems more like a management problem than a problem with home based working.

    Like Neil says above, the reality is you need to show results – regardless of where you are working. If management don’t have the right measures in place to determine whether an employee is delivering or not, then working from home probably won’t work. Still, I think it’s an opportunity missed. I believe home based working is just the kind of spur that can help organisations to get themselves organised and work out ways to determine real staff productivity – other than if they simply turn up to work.

    For me, this move by Yahoo is a lazy, backwards step.

  3. Paul Miller

    Nice idea to focus on this fascinating area Sharon. The digital workplace is not about never seeing or being with colleagues in person. It is another dimension to work; another “place” where work happens. But as I say in the chapter of my book on “Isolation” physical interaction is sacred and needs to be treated as such. What I believe we all want is neither full time in office or full time elsewhere but the choice to decide. Mayer is brave to raise this taboo subject in a tech giant like yahoo but she is missing one point – it is not about always in the office but flexing as teams and people decide.

    • @sharonodea

      I agree the digital workplace doesn’t (or shouldn’t) replace face-to-face altogether, but where good virtual working exists (both in tech, culture and policy terms), then companies do seem to use face-to-face contact differently, and sparingly – meeting because it is the best way to achieve an outcome, not just for the sake of meeting, because you always have a meeting at this time on a Tuesday, for example.

      It is a brave move, but I’m not sure it’s a wise one as enforcing on-campus working is likely to have impacts not just on staff morale but also on their ability to function as a global business.

  4. Christy Punch

    I agree with Andrew – sounds like a management problem more so than a working from home issue. It doesn’t make sense to create a one-size-fits-all company-wide policy that applies to all employees, regardless of job responsibilities, vs. a tailored approach that addresses the issues but still maintains flexibility and morale.

    As a Millennial, the conept of an 8 to 5 work day at a desk is so antiquated. The results should be the measure of an employee’s productivity, not how many hours are clocked at a desk or in meetings. I know many people who put in lots of hours at a desk, but are most likely surfing the web or playing solitaire.

    I was saddened to hear about this since I’ve been rooting for Marissa Mayer as a young female CEO. I did read somewhere that Google frowns upon working from home because they encourage innovation through collaboration — but Yahoo isn’t Google, and you can’t change a culture at a company overnight, or even in a year. Hopefully the backlash will show Mayer that.

  5. Christy Punch

    Here’s an article that may explain the reasoning behind the move:

    Makes sense in a way – and I get it — but why punish everyone for the lazy few? Take care of the remote employees that are ‘hiding’ – deal with the unproductive, fire them if you have to, for lack of performance. But don’t punish everyone and hurt morale.

    It also worries me that this will set a precedent with other companies — “Well Yahoo is a tech company, and they aren’t letting their employees work from home, so why should we?”

    • @sharonodea

      Absolutely agree with you on both counts, Christy.

      It sounds like they have a management problem, but instead of tackling it in a sensible, measured way, they’re using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, punishing everyone for the poor performance of the few.

      I hope this turns out to be a short-term measure for Yahoo, and that in six months or so they move back to a more flexible workplace approach. To that end, they (and all of us) could learn a thing or two from Martin White’s excellent research paper on Managing Virtual Teams.

      It does set a worrying precedent for other firms. You also (possibly not intentionally) touch on another potential issue, which is that women are amongst the biggest beneficiaries of flexible working, with flexible hours and location enabling those with caring responsibilities (predominantly, but not always, women) to juggle work and family commitments.

      If the pendulum swings back the other way – to full time Mon-Fri office-based working – will this impact on women’s ability to progress in their careers in the tech industry? (this might be a UK-specific issue, but here parents have a legal right to request flexible working).

  6. Martin Risgaard

    Management issue – no doubt about that. When I read between the lines there is a lack of trust and mutual respect and this has now gone so far that drastic action is needed. Once the problems have been solved I’m convinced that we will see the pendulum swing back towards more flexible working at Yahoo! again.

    Will this affect flexible working / WFH initiatives? I doubt it. In 6-12 months time we will look back on this and see it as a case of “Working from home gone wrong” and the lessons learned will most likely be that managing people remotely is quite – but not entirely – different from when you see them every day. In other words, this will be a case for others to learn from rather than to deter them from flexible working.

  7. EphraimJF

    When I first heard about it I thought it a backwards move.

    But it’s important to realize that Google (the big tech industry employer with massive benefits and a famous culture) actually tries to get people to work in offices. Many of the in-office perks and benefits are aimed at getting people onto campus and keeping them there. But that’s part of a broader culture.

    The real problem is that that often moves like this are about control – “we can’t see people, so we can’t control them.” The official Yahoo language is about “collaboration” and “communication” but the inside sources (and general speculation) suggest a whole other agenda at play.

    Like any broad stroke, clamping down, insincerely communicated corporate policies and initiatives, this one will likely have as much negative impact and fall out as it has planned/targeted impact.

  8. blinddrew

    Hmm, most of the points have been made already above. The only things that stop me working from home more frequently are a) bog awful broadband b) pockets of “presenteeism” in management c) fun stuff in my house that is waaaay more interesting than my job and d) too much time in my own company sends me a bit nuts…
    Everyone on my current set of projects is in a different location so a) and c) aside I can’t see any big impacts to my productivity.

  9. Andrew Gilleran

    I suspect that Yahoo! want people to work harder and longer and to do that they see that as working in an office environment where they know where they are and what they are doing. If, as Sharon says it’s cracking down on flexible working as well then that is truly misguided.

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