Yahoo, Marissa Mayer & Understanding Work at Home

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.