The disaster of Yahoo’s return-to-the-office mandate…and what I wish they had done, instead.
Yahoo is no longer supporting its employees in one of the leading innovations in knowledge work – their ability to choose to work wherever their work is done best.
Feeling an urgency about its status in its marketplace, and anxious to uncover market-leading innovations to help it survive and grow, Yahoo ended its support of its work-at-home program. Yahoo is apparently trying to generate a higher volume and frequency of better ideas by reinforcing the potential for the face-to-face encounters among employees that we all believe could lead to serendipitous discoveries and developments.
Yahoo’s prominence, and the profile of its new CEO, Marissa Mayer, who began the job of CEO while pregnant and working at home, means that this policy may be especially devastating to progress in many other sectors of business. There remains a significant number of companies with obsolete cultures and controlling managers who will misread this move as a justification for policies of presence. The momentum in movement toward a new kind of workplace may now become suspended in many places where it held promise of delivering new value and vitality to organizations struggling for relevance after the Great Recession.
I wish Yahoo had approached this differently. Marissa Mayer, who must now recognize the strength of her influence beyond the walls of Yahoo, could have generated powerful data about the value of the workplace and the power of the presence and proximity of people in it. Rather than issuing a policy memo, Mayer could have conducted a well-designed study of what is successful and what is not in the working spaces at Yahoo. The comparison between the celebrated workspaces of Google, from whence she came, and the current conditions at Yahoo might have provided great insight into influences on innovation from the design of the workspace and how it affects behaviors, cultures and accomplishments.
We have had clients with enlightened work-anywhere policies who had, at times, became concerned about the impact these programs could have on their organizations. How, for example, could people in an organization of consultants, working continuously in the offices of their clients rather than in their own, maintain an understanding and appreciation of their own company’s cultural DNA and deliver the promise in its brand identity and value? How would they learn from the work of their own colleagues and how would they pass on to them their own learnings from the field?
In these cases, it would be destructive to the business and its purpose to require their employees to work in their own offices. Instead, these organizations designed offices with the authentic and attractive attributes that drew their people willingly back to the office. The office was redefined and redesigned as the place where, in casual social exchanges – the behaviors Yahoo is trying to legislate, instead – they would make contact with the brand, trade stories from the field, develop new ideas for their clients and practice innovations for themselves, amplify their knowledge and augment their value, and generally move their organization further into leadership positions.
I wish Yahoo’s move were informed by this kind of critical thinking and this kind of workplace innovation. I worry about how we’ll all be working in the future if the next story we read about Yahoo is how it fell further behind even after implementing this policy. Marissa Mayer and her managers at Yahoo must feel a great sense of urgency to have reversed their flexible work policy. I hope they find a space to breathe easier in the near future and do the kind of internal reflection and research into the power of the design of the workplace that could yield something more valuable for them, and more valuable and liberating for the rest of us.