Marissa Mayer's 'No Telecommuting' Policy Is Right

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 03-05-2013

Marissa Mayer's 'No Telecommuting' Policy Is Right

By Marc J. Schiller

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is burdened with the honor of being the youngest Fortune 500 CEO, one of only 20 women in those ranks, and with having been hired in the third trimester of her first pregnancy. Understandably, a lot of people want her to carry their banner. However, it is not her job to be anything other than a great CEO and revive Yahoo! from the depths of Internet irrelevance.

The funny thing is that Mayer’s recent decision to reverse Yahoo!’s policy of allowing a great deal of remote work has stirred up a firestorm of criticism on nearly all the relevant issues, but not on the merits of her case.

Personally and professionally, I think Mayer’s right on target. And every senior exec that’s serious about collaboration, innovation and creativity ought to follow in her footsteps. Here’s why.

The Nature of Innovative Work

To bring innovative products and services to market in a company of any size—let alone in a giant like Yahoo!—requires a great deal of communication and collaboration between people. The spark of a great idea hatched at 3:00 a.m. by the lone genius huddled in front of his home computer plays well in the movies but in reality, the hard part is taking that spark and turning it into a fire that burns throughout the enterprise.

Whenever human collaboration is required, it always works better when people physically show up. We’ve all been there. Unless you have access to the Pentagon’s video-conferencing facilities, the rest of us mere mortals in corporate America suffer in the pseudo-collaborative world of online tools that are forever dropping calls, choking on live video feeds and just plain cumbersome to use.

The belief that the synergy of in-person meetings can be replicated over e-mail, Skype,
WebEx or whatever you happen to use, is simply wrong. Even the best technology adds an artificiality and strain to the process of connecting and working together. Being in the same place and interacting naturally with each other is when the magic happens.

Not all Remote Work Is the Same

I know that different studies say people are more efficient when they work from home. That may be the case for certain workers in certain circumstances. On the high end of the digital work hierarchy, for example, a star software engineer charged with developing a complex algorithm for her team may stay at home in order to think things through before getting back to her colleagues. On the low end of the digital work scale are people doing rote, simple and repetitive processes, such as logging customer information into a system and then sending it to the next person in the chain. In this case, there is little, if any, collaboration or creativity involved. But this hardly makes the case that remote work can support the type of innovation, creativity and collaboration that is necessary to bring Yahoo! back from the abyss.

Marissa Mayer's 'No Telecommuting' Policy Is Right

After all, Yahoo! is meant to be a leading edge, high-tech company that creates the future, where working face-to-face is needed most.

It Isn’t a Trust Issue

This is not about whether you trust your workers or trying to do the Brazil hyper-monitoring thing. I’m very flexible with my employees and expect, encourage and support them having lives outside of the office. I’m very trusting of them to manage their schedules, but they also know that they must ensure adequate and abundant time together—and not just when it’s scheduled. Proximity matters. (I wrote about it in my book The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders in 2012 and got a lot of flak for it.) 

But I am more convinced now than ever that it’s those serendipitous conversations that lead not only to new insights, but to faster execution of the new insights. Questions you would never ask if you weren’t passing someone in the hall can lead to important advancements.

Today I’m working from home, writing a talk. That’s fine. I need the quiet, and this part of the writing is not collaborative. But later today, I’ll be brainstorming with my colleagues in person.

The PR Stumble

What I do think happened here is that Mayer was handed an unfair public-relations problem. She just had a nursery for her son built, at her own expense, adjacent to her office. And with that as a backdrop, many people felt that the no-remote-work policy was a slap in the face to working mothers who can’t do what she can. But this policy is not about working mothers per se, it’s about what work environment is best for Yahoo!’s employees. To think otherwise is to saddle Mayer with an agenda that hardly advances the feminist cause.

The truth is, CEOs get a lot of privileges (and responsibilities) the average worker does not. Many of these privileges are designed to allow them to work at maximum efficiency, with as little interruption as possible, for the company they are leading. We need to separate Mayer the individual from Mayer the CEO, and look at her policy change in terms of its impact on Yahoo!’s business success. Period. And when we do that, feminism and working mothers really do win. 


About the Author

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels about how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Get access to free videos and a free excerpt from his book,
The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at www.marcjschiller.com/resources.