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Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, and Remote Work: a Missed Opportunity

earth-from-mars_flickr_nasa-goddard_180x180By now, just about everyone has heard about Marissa Mayer’s first big public move as newly-minted CEO of Yahoo, Inc.: no more remote work, issuing a directive that all remote employees need to show up at a physical Yahoo office.

This has resulted in a storm of criticism from journalists, armchair-CEO’s, and remote workers around the world (including me).

A subsequent memo from Yahoo human resources boss Jackie Reses included this text: “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

From the armchair-CEO perspective, one thing is clear: Yahoo is in deep trouble as a business. Will this move help? Probably. In the worst and most cynical case, workers who can’t or won’t follow this directive will leave, so Yahoo achieves a low cost layoff. Clearly there are bigger issues than this that need Mayer’s attention, so from her perspective I suspect it’s little more than a PR storm that needs to be managed and forgotten.

As someone who set up his first home office in 1981, and who has worked remotely, managed remote teams, and been a remote customer more or less continuously for the past 15 years, I can say this much: Mayer is right about the benefits of casual interactions between team members and others. The power of incidental “water-cooler” (or “espresso bar”) interactions is impossible to quantify but hard to ignore. Mere proximity is important: I recall reading a study that showed that working on another office floor reduced interaction almost to the same level as working on another continent.

What I find disappointing is Yahoo’s retrenching into a traditional model. Here is a company founded on the cusp of the Internet boom, built on innovative ideas. In theory, a lot of their employees joined Yahoo because they were attracted to this innovative spirit. If I were in charge there, I’d obviously be dealing with the big strategic issues that are probably where Mayer is really focused, but at the same time I’d challenge my team to solve these problems with remote work. Someone will invent the virtual version of the water cooler conversation. Most of the technology is already there, it’s a question of culture and some new tools that support the kinds of interactions you get when in close physical proximity.

Instead of physically bringing Yahoo’s remote workers into the office, I would have challenged them to invent the tools that allowed them to achieve the benefits of close quarters without sacrificing the ability to work remotely. It is a missed opportunity to innovate, and that’s unfortunate.

Image credit: Nasa Goddard Photo and Video (flickr)

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