Seeing the recent news about Yahoo moving to reduce or end remote work made me want to revisit the topic. I know that my last post on remote work got quite a bit of comments, and I’m interested to see what other people think about Marissa Mayer’s decision. I know that I personally believe that people generally get things done better, more efficiently, and teamwork comes easier in face to face settings. I don’t have an enormous amount of empirical proof that that is true, I’m just speaking from my personal experience. At one point, I worked remotely for a year straight. I think I personally got a lot done but I think it more had to do with the type of job I was working. I was at the time at a kind of technical coding oriented job where there was not a huge driver there by which I needed to come in and work with other people on a daily basis to make progress. So I was well situated to succeed just from the fact that the job didn’t require an enormous amount of interaction. Personally I missed some of the interaction of the office and by the end of the year, I was ready to come back in. This was just based on the social aspects of being in an office with other people and not just my personal belief that working together in a physical sense is superior to working remotely.
I think that we’ve had 1000’s of years of experience in working together in teams and in person and while technology is incredible, and there’s been a huge amount of firms that have innovated around collaboration and teamwork and bringing remote workers closer together, it’s not 100% the same as working in the same environment. In general, I just don’t think you get as good of results. With all that said, I realize some of this may be biased because of my own personal tendency towards enjoying that level of interaction and maybe not everyone works better in that situation. I certainly understand that but I really do believe that for the most part, the in person experience is incredibly hard to replicate. I think you’re going to lose a little bit of the productivity and the spark that comes from working in person but there are certainly lots of tasks that lend themselves to more solitary environments. The bigger issue though is the fact that there are certainly individual situations which mean that while you might not get the same benefit of having them in the office every day, you will at least get something that they would otherwise not be able to perform because of their personal circumstances that make in the office working incredibly hard. For example, people who have kids at home and because of scheduling or the commuting makes it very hard on their family to be in person on the job. Or maybe due to where they live you wouldn’t be able to add them to your team and relocation would preclude them from working for you if they had to physically relocate. I think those are the biggest drivers that should be looked at here. I do think that you can work well enough remotely to get a lot of the benefit that a person could bring if that person is committed to it and the organization is committed to it.
I think the thing Yahoo is going to have a problem with is that a lot of the really talented people that just have very specific or very good reason for why they want to work from home; those people are going to leave. They are going to find another situation where they are able to continue down the track that they had and became comfortable with and the folks that are going to be left in the situation aren’t going to be the ones that you really wanted to hang on to. What you’re going to end up with are the folks that either don’t have other options, or the ones that are waiting for other opportunities to materialize, or simply the ones that aren’t your top performers. I think that’s the biggest issue and not necessarily the remote work vs. the in person work. It’s the way that the change is being implemented that is the problem. It’s very broad and very sudden which is never a good idea with something like this, specifically where you’re talking about something that is not just a work change. You’re going to make a really fundamental shift for people and its going to cause enormous issues for staff that have any of the things that I mentioned previously. If you have a child care situation which is why you’re working from home, well you know that’s not going to change just because this decree was made. So if that’s a talented person that you wanted to retain, that’s too bad because you’ve probably lost them. Now maybe it’s hard to tell without real insight into it but maybe they’re ok with that. Maybe there’s a reduction in force coming anyway and this is a convenient way to reduce size by making people miserable; but I don’t think that’s a very good approach either. If you’re trying to cut back on the people that work for you period, do that by lay-offs selectively.
I don’t think that this type of a change being implemented like this bodes well for the performance of Yahoo or really any organization. When you look at things where there’s enormous spill over into people’s personal lives in making some sort of change, you have to be very careful about how you approach it. In this case, maybe a better approach would have been to brief upper management to provide flexibility to managers so that they can pull in people that are truly underperforming, if that was one of the issues that they believed was causing this. This is something that could easily be transitioned towards over an 18 month period where you start pulling in your top performers and make sure that management has an opportunity to ensure that they can keep the best folks. Then maybe they could work with these people that truly have lifestyle requirements that make work from home a must have and in doing so, make it so that you don’t place so much of your in place staff at risk. I’m curious to see what other people think about this major decree. I will definitely be monitoring this to see how this develops and what happens to Yahoo’s workforce over time.