The news that Marissa Mayer has banned working from home at Yahoo! has created much heated debate both inside and outside of the organisation from mommy bloggers to Richard Branson. But whose right when it comes to working from home?
There is both a general perspective on working for home and clearly a very specific one to Yahoo! that the CEO knows better than perhaps armchair critics give her credit for.
I believe a blanket ban on working from home is an extreme measure (or perhaps medicine) that Ms Mayer’s has imposed due to the severity of the problems within her organisation. I suspect that over time – and after the culture has changed – the rules will be relaxed but right now allowing exceptions would open up another avenue for abuse. Naturally the effect of this personally on some individuals will be intolerable and they will be paying a heavy the price for the abuses of their colleagues.
However, if Mayer does not succeed in turning around Yahoo! then every employee’s job will be at risk whether they work in the office or at home. This is Mayer leading cultural change within Yahoo! to turn it from a bloated sluggish and lazy company into one that can become agile, innovative and compete effectively with Google. I am sure that in this process Yahoo! will lose talent, but talent that isn’t engaged or committed isn’t going to help Yahoo! compete.
So is this simply localised medicine to address the ills of Yahoo! or are there general lessons to be learned?
My view is that a blanket ban on working from home is NOT a policy that companies should implement under normal circumstances. I believe organisations should be flexible and allow trusted managers to exercise a degree of freedom to decide if/when members of their team can work from home.
However, I believe working from home should be the exception and not the norm. Whilst technology is a great enabler and does make working from home easier, it does not make it on par with working in the office and here’s why;
- Collaboration. People are not computers or robots; you are not networked simply by having a computer on the network. Email and phone are only two ways people communicate not the sum total. This is so important particularly in the IT industry where innovation and ideas often come not through formal meetings, but through encounters at the coffee machine and informal chats in the hallway or canteen. Spontaneous meetings that spark ideas, solve problems or create opportunities are not easily replicated via a PC.
- Culture. An organisation – whether business or otherwise- is based on a group of people who share a common purpose and vision. Some even go so far as to call it a “tribe”. The culture of an organisation is about shared identity and purpose that enables people to work together more effectively even in tough times and when tough decisions need to be made. The culture and values of an organisation isn’t simply learned remotely. Could you learn the French culture from simply from a book?
- Engagement. Remote working is just that; you are remote from the organisation, your colleagues, and the day to day operation of the business. WFH policies dismantle team-work. People are social beings and get – and give – value from being with other people. This is why VHS and DVD did not kill of the cinema even though they are considerably cheaper mediums for watching films. People are more engaged when they work in a team and actually know their boss and colleagues – they don’t want to let them down. Working in the office is not just of value to the employer but also provides meaningful interactions for employees and can actually help retain staff.
These reasons simply underline a basic principle;
People are not computers and work best in a culture not in isolation. People don’t work like computers and are at their best when they are not treated as such. Computers can’t collaborate, innovate or be engaged, they simply process and that is their strength and weakness. People provide the collaboration, innovation and engagement so long as the environment is conducive to that aim.
The second principle is common sense; there are roles and times in people’s life when a degree of flexibility to work from home is important and facilitating this creates commitment and trust.
It seems Yahoo! has paid the price for following a FAD and is now having to take some serious medication. Other businesses should take note.