Yahoo, Marissa Mayer & Understanding Work at Home

| Hidden Dimensions

There are several working theories about why Marissa Mayer no longer allows Yahoo employees to work at home. In any case, in principle, working at home is very doable for these kinds of technical jobs. I worked out of a home office for Apple, and I have some thoughts on the whole affair.

The fundamental issues with working at home are:

  1. The employee is trusted.
  2. There is much important work to do.
  3. The manager of the person working at home knows what needs to be done and can monitor results.

If any of those three conditions are not met, working at home (WAH), fails.

If trust is missing, or if the employee abuses the privilege of working at home, or if the employee isn't given enough to do and improvises, WAH fails. It also fails if the hiring process failed to find a self-starter type.

If the employee doesn't feel empowered to make a dent in the universe, isn't stake holder in the outcome, and isn't given something really challenging, he or she will drift. WAH fails. This article suggests that's what was happening at Yahoo.

I have often said that you can't lead if you don't know what you want. Managers who have ill-conceived ideas about what needs to be done, because they, in turn, aren't empowered can't lead. They can't tell WAH people what they want and when they want it -- deliverables. Oversight and WAH fails.

Life at Apple

When I worked for Apple, in two different jobs, I worked out of a home near Denver, in the foothills. The first job was as a science and technology marketing manager and the second was as a federal sales executive. I had my own Internet connection, but Apple supplied a notebook computer and a cell phone. I had VPN access to get inside Apple's firewall, and I could access Apple documents, servers, employee phone book, travel expense apps (written in Java!) an so on.

I had two phenomenal bosses each time. Each one, "Morgan" and "Stephen" knew exactly what they wanted and what they expected of me. The problem, if you can call it that, is that there was so much buzz at Apple, so many cool things going on, that 1) We easily got overworked doing our job plus the fun stuff 2) Our jobs required us to work with a lot of other people, hence constant, huge amounts of phone calls and email. 3) It was a learning environment. Lots of learning.

Working at home doesn't mean you don't meet other employees.

Various administrative, technical meetings and conferences had to be arranged. Websites had to be designed and content created. Technical conferences had to be managed, which is more work than imaginable -- bringing people, computers and booth properties into sync at the right time. Marketing materials had to be prepared. Sales reports assembled. Presentations prepared for customer onsite visits were endless.

Apple briefings for customers invited to Cupertino were high profile, hard work, and sometimes senior Apple execs, including Mr. Jobs, would sit in. No pressure there. And then there was the email and phone dialog with customers, providing technical support. Plus, I had to study day and night to keep up with Apple technologies. After all, if you're an Apple employee, you just have to know everything.

All of us I knew who worked out of home offices, my own colleagues and others, all worked 60+ hour weeks and loved it. We felt like we were changing things for the better. Working for Apple in the the 2000-2005 time was a virtuous crusade, the challenge of a lifetime.

I met a lot of other Apple employees at the many scientific and technical conferences I attended, along with Apple's annual sales meeting held in November -- plus other on campus meetings. And then there are presentations and meetings at Macworld. And WWDC to attend with customers in tow. I recall several day meetings on campus in Cupertino when I lifted off from DIA at 0900 on United and was back home by 2000 hrs that night. Other times I was on the road for 7-8 days at a time.

I met other Apple employees in the course of this home-based work. There were people I had to coordinate with to get my own job done. That kept me involved with an ever growing administrative and technical circle.

Management Excuses

So right away, when managers say that WAH employees are missing the opportunity to interact, I claim B.S. Go ahead and stand in the atrium for 45 minutes, chatting with another employee about an exciting new project of your own design and watch how fast your manager gives you the evil-eye on his/her way to the restroom. They're thinking, get back to your cubicle and get back to work!

WAH employees generally save a company money by suppling their own workspace, heat, power, light, and so on. In addition, there's a huge cost associated with driving to work: time, highway aggravation, gas, wear on tear on a car, dress clothes, eating out and so on. Working at home is modern, environmentally friendly, and economical. Any company that selects against it, 100 percent, is either trying to make the employee quit or is suffering from very poor managers who are breaking one or more of the three rules I listed above.

Or else the company can't really think of anything really important and worth doing. And convey that to its managers.

Comments

geoduck

I worked at home for 2 1/2 years a couple of years back. It was wonderful. Being IT support our progress was measured by TTs cleared and downtime we did NOT have so my bosses were very happy with what I got done. I went to the sites once a week or more if needed, but because most of what I did was via Remote Access to servers it really made no difference WHERE I was actually sitting. Funny thing about WAH, I felt that I put in less actual “office time” but I got more work done because I wasn’t wasting time dressing/driving/drinking coffee with coworkers.

I miss that.

webjprgm

One theory is that you get better innovation by spontaneous interactions from making employees run into each other.  E.g. how the Pixar building was built as mentioned in a previous TMO article.

I had an experience where most of the members of a team I was on were in a single hallway and I and one other were in a different hallway. Those close members could hear each others conversations about who was developing what and what design was changing etc. while I was often left out in the dark and didn’t find out until the next team meeting or until I stumbled over something I didn’t know about but everyone else did.  I imagine that if everyone was in separate locations then we’d have productive email conversations (and sometimes we did, esp. if I started the conversation). But if you have most team members together and just a few remote then you have problems.

I also found it psychologically distancing to ask someone a quick question. Although I could access the whole team via email or IM, I preferred to walk all the way over there so I could see who looked deep in concentration and who looked like they’d have a spare moment.  That’s harder to replace with IM and email, so if I really was WAH instead of just a few hallways away I would be missing one form of interaction.

I think WAH issues can be solved though. Improved communication technologies, a higher percent of the team working remotely and therefore using those communication methods, and people in general getting more used to working that way should work out.

There are still executives and managers that are anti-work-from-home.  There are companies that build large and nice buildings for people to work in. They pay relocation to get employees out there and insist that people relocate.  So I think the office-less future is still a bit distant.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Any company that selects against it, 100 percent, is either trying to make the employee quit…

Bullseye, John. Mayer is tossing in her five cards and hoping to pull up a new, better hand. This was a horribly arbitrary way to do that. If it doesn’t coincide with success (because it certainly won’t create it), she’s headed for Carly Fiorina territory and a sad, quick end to a promising career.

Gareth Harris

After working in settings large and small, corporate and university, plus managing a couple of computer R&D startups, I found that a balanced blend was needed. Rather than having no work at home or 100% out of the office, I tried to have employees have some private time, at home if they wished, and other times when we were all expected to be on deck in the office for group meetings, etc. The measure was productivity rather than clock punching.

A related story: Once when the chaos got excessive in the office, I decreed that no one disturb anyone else before 10 am. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, so I responded and said: “Try this for one month. If you still don’t like it, we’ll drop it.” After one month, I started to drop the practice of protected quiet time, but the complainers now wanted me to keep it, saying it was their most productive time.

My point is that we all need several types of work time and places to do them and a smart boss provides these resources.

WMac

As a sales professional, the majority of my time was spent in client facing meetings or acquiring more clients. I had a home office with infrastructure provided by the company, and only went into the office for monthly staff meetings, or a client presentation. Loved it!

Paul Goodwin

My wife works at home. All your criteria for success is met. She puts in a couple of more hours every day than she would if she were commuting. She works extremely hard. Her multi functional teams are very successful when the project goals are well understood by the team organizers, and they have the ability to define their needs clearly. Just like the office environment, when the teams are strong, amazing results come out of it. When leadership is weak, the team members have to bear the load and make up for it. Often times it’s her bailing out the leader. She has consistently been recognized as highly valued by Sr. Leadership. Her teams are almost always made up of people over wide geographic areas, so going to an office doesn’t really help. If a company has human assets spread over a lot of locations, working from home make far more sense than going into an office.

Hugh

When I worked for HP, an incoming CEO newly appointd CIO decided that ALL staff would need to be in th office. i.e. no remote workrs

This coincided with a consolidation of IT ops centres into 3 in the USA, and the building of new buildings to house staff, that had less office space then staff, e.g. 700 seats for 1500 staff, which necessitated some folk to work from home several days a week.

The decsion was part of a plan to divest thousands of employees worldwide, and they haven’t stopped shedding staff in groups of 10-25,000 since then. The side effect was to reduce inhouse experience, increase training needs, and a lot of staff churn.

TM

Work at home fits for certain profiles/type of work. For one poster, who is a support person, it definitely works. As for another poster, who was in sales, it works too as the person will be on the road most of the time. But, some visits/interactions with the marketing/engineering/product management teams in the office will make it better as one will have better belief in their products instead of just selling of a cheat sheet. For those in product development or new business innovation and especially working in small groups, work from home does not work that well. Such teams tend to have adhoc meetings/discussions which do not go well when one works remotely. For highly organized/planned job profiles where someone follows established tasks/work schedule, work at home can be more productive. For job profiles, where things are more dynamic, changing and new additions to be made/built, work at home does not work.

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