If you think Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo decision is about remote work – you’re missing the point

Everyone’s talking about Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to eliminate remote work at Yahoo. Remote work critics are gleefully announcing the ends in sight for all flexible work and lots of people disdain Mayer’s decision on gender grounds. We think everyone is missing the point. Flexwork, telecommuting, remote work programs (call them what you will) can’t function in broken cultures lacking trust. And Yahoo is definitely broken and there is very little trust to be found.

Yahoo doesn’t suffer from a flexible work problem, that’s just a symptom of a much larger issue. What they are is an atrophied, lost company with poor moral that Mayer’s high profile, media-hyped presence is simply highlighting. It’s been going on for years. This kind of decay didn’t happen overnight and even Mayer can’t fix it as fast as she would like (regardless of the give-aways). Poor moral situations are the worst possible scenarios for remote employees (and office employees). But I suppose, as tough as it is to work in an office under these dreadful circumstances, at least you know what people are saying about you. You don’t have to guess or manufacture paranoia; it’s all there – right in front of your face. When you work remotely under these conditions, it’s a disaster. Hard to get things done and stay motivated when you are out of sight and poorly managed.

Faced with this reality, Mayer’s options were pretty limited. We don’t much agree with Peter Cohan’s assessment in Forbes. Yes, Mayer’s decision is hypocritical (shock, shock, a corporate executive showing double standards). But her current move gets Yahoo back into the headlines and demonstrates to her board that she is pulling out all the stops. This decision is also a calculated gambit that could deliver a major workforce reduction mid-year that allows Mayer an opportunity to infuse the organization with a whole new batch of talent untainted by an old, broken culture. Never a bad thing when you are trying to revive something so damaged.

Does anyone seriously think that by eliminating all “official” remote work Yahoo office employees are instantly achieve high productivity?  Hardly. The dirty little secret that no one will talk about out loud is all this noise is mostly media hype. Yahoo isn’t really going to be able to achieve an instant turn-around in their culture with this move. Conversely, they won’t be able to eliminate all work outside the office. They can’t. VPN access, conference calls, video conferencing and offsite meetings (all major symbols of telecommuting and remote work) aren’t going away. They will continue because clients, vendors and even “Yahoo-ers” located in multiple office buildings can’t function without them.

Yahoo employees will still carry laptops when they travel and will still use their new iPhones to check email outside business hours and perform work tasks outside the office.  But now everything will be done surreptitiously under the radar with a certain amount of niggling resentment and rolling-of-the-eyes. Remote work is not just a “work-from-home” policy these days, that’s just one small aspect of the remote work universe.  Working at a distance, working on the road, maintaining round-the-clock connection has become a fundamental way of doing business that isn’t going away anytime soon – nor should it. But let’s put some honesty and sanity into the equation, please!

Responsible, professional adults appreciate the freedom to integrate their professional and personal lives. When treated as such, they become better, more focused employees. They like the flexibility remote work affords them.  According to the Telework Research Network, 47% of people who have the option to telework are “very satisfied” with their jobs, compared to 27% of those who are office-bound. And over two-thirds of employers report increased productivity among their teleworkers.  But successful remote work programs require a level of trust and commitment between company, manager and employee that Yahoo just doesn’t have right now.

It’s true that not every job is suited for remote work. As open-minded as I am, I’m not sure I am ready for a robot nurse or holographic customer service people. Most successful corporations with remote work programs evaluate remote roles based on the requirements of job. And no one is intimating that face-to-face has no value. Even virtual companies need some “face-time” once in a while. But when has eliminating a cost-saving strategic choice as a viable option ever been a good idea in business?

Good people will do good work regardless of their surroundings. They always figure out how to get things done. That’s what makes them so good. Unilaterally revoking an innovative workplace practice because some people fail to make the grade is unproductive. Build a culture that enables, hire the right people for the job, give them the support and tools they need and stop blaming remote work for low productivity.  It’s short-sighted and unrealistic given the potential savings in time, money, resources and productivity (not to mention quality of life and reduced carbon footprints) that results when remote work is done right.