gray and respect are missing in yahoo’s decision to end telecommuting

February 28, 2013

in change,culture,work-life flexibility

we don’t speak in gray. we don’t react in gray. we are not comfortable with gray.

that’s my “takeaway” from yahoo’s announcement about their elimination of work-at-home and telecommuting policies.

if you missed the story, here’s the upshot: yahoo’s new CEO marissa mayer has issued a policy change requiring all workers to be onsite. the rationale for this change is included in a memo shared publicly by yahoos (what they call their employees, i kid not). it focuses on the benefits of working together, especially the increased likelihood of random collisions and the innovation these produce. it’s true, studies have found innovation goes up when people work together in a shared space. productivity, on the other hand, increases when we work apart.

there’s been a rash of criticism following yahoo’s decision. the commentary and critiques run the gamut you’d expect. yahoo is on the wrong side of history. yahoo is a stale organization and this is a stale decision. it’s easy for mayer to eradicate telecommuting when she has a nursery right next to her office. yahoo’s remaining talent will run for the hills, or at least to google, facebook, or another tech company. (the irony here is that google also wants them down on the farm.) you can’t create culture from policy.

there’ve been supporters, too, or at least wait-and-seers. (pro and con article roundup).

what’s missing in these responses and in yahoo’s release is the gray. the gray of is this temporary? the gray of how do we handle the insanely talented and irreplaceable person who needs to tend to his ailing partner/child/ mother/dog right now but wants to continue working? the gray of does this really need to be universal? the gray of could a creative mix of work-at-home and be-at-work days address business issues while valuing individual needs?

what’s also missing is a measure of respect; respect from those making comments and respect by yahoo for its employees. i will cautiously respect yahoo’s business decision, but i can’t defend their communication approach. the released communication did precious little to explain what’s at stake, why yahoo made this decision, why it’s being universally applied, whether they wrestled with it, and whether it’s a policy designed to get over the hump or here for the long haul.

it’s understandable why employees’ feathers were ruffled. the memo begins with a recitation of recently delivered benefits goodies before winding its way to a casual lumping together of anyone occasionally working from home into a slacker category. the business need and each individual’s reality are ignored or vaguely addressed with cheerleading.

whether yahoo realizes their intention but loses their talent because of this change, we’ll have to wait and see. whether that talent could’ve been saved with a better communication strategy, we will never know.


p.s. from the “i wish i’d done this” files: how the letter could’ve been written.




Leave a Comment

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn February 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Fran, well said! The “gray” is indeed a problem in communication. Do we know if Yahoo! conducted some internal research which tested this concept on key employees? It seems that is always a useful approach to get pre-buy in and employee-centered benefits design when you have high-value employees in a segment of the labor market that’s tight. That…aside from being on the wrong side of history which is definitely what hit me upside the head when I first heard this news. ! Thx for your always-sage insights…


fran February 28, 2013 at 8:39 pm

i’m going to have to assume they have done research, have spoken with their key talent to prevent their departure, and have done many other things to which we aren’t privy and they, rightfully, don’t feel the need to answer for.

it does feel on the wrong side of history, but as others have pointed out, reducing workplace flexibility is becoming more of a trend than we’d like to think or see.

thanks for commenting, jane.


Bob Merberg March 1, 2013 at 9:25 am


Thank you for being a voice of reason on this issue. When I first heard the news of Ms. Mayer’s memo, I retweeted links to some blog posts about it. I don’t *think* the commentary I helped promote was disrespectful, but the very act of promoting some of the commentary probably revealed my bias: Yahoo’s decision was on the wrong side of history.

But the more I reflected on the matter, the more I thought, “Who am I to judge Yahoo’s decision?” After all, I don’t appreciate it when folks on social media criticize the type of things I do in my work or the type of decisions I have to make, especially because few of the critics, in my opinion, truly understand the complexities that go into major decisions at large companies. I do not know the culture of Yahoo, nor can I claim to truly understand their challenges.

Yes, the Yahoo decision raises concerns for me. Intuitively, I hold the opinion (and that’s all it is) that many executives eschew flexible work arrangements (including work-from-home) for reasons that have more to do with personal control — or perception of control — rather than measurable business outcomes. And I am concerned that Yahoo’s decision, which has become high-profile, may emerge as a source of validation for some of these executives. They may take it as some sort of evidence that being in the office fosters collaboration and creativity and feel emboldened with their own anti-flexibility bias.

Ultimately, this decision may be regrettable for our society, and Yahoo may be on the wrong side of history. But, at this point, it seems their primary goal is survival, and I do not know enough about Yahoo — who amongst us does? — to judge how they go about it.


fran March 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm

bob, thanks for reading and commenting. i agree that this seems a survival tactic. i still can’t relate to the lack of gray in executing. surely they made concessions to some employees? in the meantime, we’ll claw our way toward more workplace flexibility.



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