Last week, an internal HR memo to Yahoo employees got mud-spattered, torn up, and dragged through the public square that is the Internet. Everyone from Google’s CFO to Donald Trump weighed in on CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting among Yahoo workers. And the Tweets! My God, the tweets! (Also, be sure to check out David Gee’s post about Yahoo’s confusion over PR and HR)
Contentious though it seems, I’m sure we can at least agree with the ideals Mayer is trying to conjure. Things like increased productivity, meaningful interaction among employees, and the growth of new ideas – these we can objectively label as “good.” Those who are against Mayer (and there are many) are waving around a list of injustices that we can all agree are “bad”-- a downgrade in productivity, less motivation, and poorer balance between family and work.
But what is the root of the good, and the bad? Does the freedom to dictate our own hours and environment liberate our minds? Or our inner slacker? Does the physical fact of “togetherness” actually foster teamwork? Or frustrating distractions?
The fact that social media and workforce analysts alike are abuzz with commentary demonstrates that there’s something else we can agree on: that the policy will bring about some kind of impact. If there’s anyone out there who thinks Yahoo’s rhythm will continue unchanged – not a blip in the metronome – they’re being ridiculously quiet on their Twitter account.
In my opinion, we can treat Yahoo as an interesting case study to illustrate the debate. Most companies have a flexible policy regarding telecommuting, so there’s a lot of grey area. Yahoo’s black-and-white policy has made it possible for researchers to cherry-pick the variable of telecommuting. Statisticians won’t have to compare two different industries, or companies, or even different workers (assuming there won’t be mass desertion and turnover). It’s the same people, only a considerable chunk of them (Yahoo won’t say how many of their 11,500 currently work from home) will be changing their work habits come June.
After an initial period of discomfort or lingering resentment, I’m curious to see data related to employee engagement and innovation. America is fascinated by the company culture of Google, Facebook, and Pixar, all of whom famously try to stimulate interaction. When Steve Jobs designed Pixar's office, he placed the restrooms, cafeteria, mailboxes, and meeting rooms in the center of the building. Employees were being forced to interact spontaneously with people in unfamiliar territory. What's striking about this scenario is that the employees knew they were being manipulated, but the magic happened anyway.
Mayer is also experimenting with manipulation. Perhaps she doesn't view it as an experiment, and has complete confidence that workplace interaction breeds innovation. But as distant observers, we can agree to view it as an experiment, right? Let's sit back and see if it explodes into noxious fumes... or colorful fireworks.