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Why Yahoo banning work from home doesn’t matter (and why it does)

I’ve been avoiding this one for a while – partly because almost every HR blogger has made some mention of it.  But now I’m in fear that if I don’t blog about it, WordPress might force removal of all “Human Resources” tags from all my posts.  But I also think there’s something missing from the conversation – working from home is not a belief system, but a policy… and we don’t need to get so upset about Yahoo cancelling theirs.

What Happened?

On the 22nd February, Yahoo! issued a memo banning work from home.  The memo states:

…To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together… Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

Public Response

…And the media and blogs went, well, kind of crazy.  Here’s a summary of some of the responses from the media:

“Perplexing” – Washington Post

“Epic Fail” – Forbes

“Risky” Bloomberg

“From a Bygone Era” – The Guardian

…and here are some comments on various blog posts and media articles:

I am horrified by this drastic measure taken by Yahoo”

“Another reason why Yahoo! is so far behind Google. The year is 2013. If Yahoo! is still operating in five years, it will be a miracle. They are the next MySpace.”

“I take personal offense to the inference that working at home doesn’t produce the same quality of work.”

Employee Respsonse

Guess who wasn’t all that enraged by the change?  Actual Yahoo employees:

“I have been at Yahoo for four years and let’s just say the house needed and still needs a lot of cleaning up and Marissa is doing just that. So I am glad that the change in policy was made.

…We are fighting to stay relevant. So getting your ass into the office and working on projects is not too much to ask. If you don’t like it well too bad, the exit door is over there.” – Read Quote of Anon User’s answer to Marissa Mayer Ends WFH (February 2013): What has been the internal reaction at Yahoo to Marissa Mayer’s no-work-from-home policy? on Quora

“I’m not providing an internal reaction as I no longer work at Yahoo (left in 2012). However, from the perspective of my time there this is a much needed policy. I saw many people abuse the work at home policy. In fact it was a running joke that a large percentage of employees basically did no work on Fridays.” – Read Quote of Anon User’s answer to Marissa Mayer Ends WFH (February 2013): What has been the internal reaction at Yahoo to Marissa Mayer’s no-work-from-home policy? on Quora

“I think its a great thing for the company. I have been at Yahoo! for 5 years and Marissa is doing a much needed house cleaning. There is still some good talent here but we need all hands on deck and thoses who are not team players can just bow out.” – Read Quote of Anon User’s answer to Marissa Mayer Ends WFH (February 2013): What has been the internal reaction at Yahoo to Marissa Mayer’s no-work-from-home policy? on Quora

Yahoo's new working from home policy is just fine, according to Yahoo news.

Yahoo’s new working from home policy is just fine, according to Yahoo news.  Got to give Yahoo credit for SEO knowledge.

Why doesn’t this matter?

Well, it seems that major news outlets care deeply about this issue – but here’s the thing… Yahoo’s policy just might be right for Yahoo.  It might not be right for your organisation, and it might not be consistent with your views on how the world of work should be configured, but unless you work at Yahoo, it won’t affect you directly.  It’s true that working from home has proven benefits for many organisations including retention and productivity; and positive externalities like less traffic congestion for everyone else, and lowering pollution.  But it’s also true that Yahoo has to do what is best for Yahoo.  Yahoo, nor any other organisation, should run HR by what the commentariat consider to be “best practice”, or by the latest trend.

Personally, I think productivity is not the issue for Yahoo.  I’m not saying it’s not AN issue, but it’s not THE issue.  The issue Mayer needs to address is not with productivity, but with innovation.  To quote from the memo, Some of the best decisions and insights” are not coming out of Yahoo, and they’re struggling for relevance and market share… that’s not an issue of productivity, but it’s a critical issue for the company.  I believe there are many, many organizations for whom a work from home policy works – but I suspect Yahoo is not one of them, because of the alignment and engagement issues.  Mayer is famously (at times frustratingly) data-driven in her decision-making.  From her time at Google, she would understand the power of HR Data Analytics, and if Mayer has cancelled working from home at Yahoo, it’s because working from home isn’t working at Yahoo.

Why does this matter?

Because of the inevitable knee-jerk “me-too” responses, the most high-profile of these being Best Buy cancelling their work from home policy two weeks later.  This one matters because Best Buy were pioneers in working from home, in fact the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) movement came out of Best Buy, and helped Best Buy teams save $2.2 million over three years by reducing turnover by 90 percent and boosting productivity by an average of 41 percent (source).  So it’s puzzling then that Best Buy would roll back a program that they’ve been using for almost two decades and with claimed savings in the millions.

There will be many others who will be seriously considering rolling back work from home, regardless of their own individual goals and culture, and whether that’s the right thing to do for them.  Yahoo’s leader is data driven, but that can’t be said of all organisations.

What’s the right answer when it comes to working from home?

It very much depends on your organisation.  But if you don’t want to have to worry about whether it is or isn’t right for you: hire great people, engage them in the company’s mission, and hold them accountable for their results – all the way down the org chart.

If managers don’t get results on unambiguous goals, they’re accountable.  This will ensure that they harness their teams to meet those goals, and so on down the structure..  Importantly, this approach also requires that the work people are doing is aligned to the goals of the organization (that they’re not doing all the wrong things very efficiently).  That can’t be done if employees don’t know what those goals are.  If both accountability and alignment are in place, then regardless of when and where employees work, more than half of your productivity issues are solved.  It quickly becomes clear to both management and the staff themselves where they are not being productive – and gives the employees the opportunity to address that.

But primarily, as with all Talent Management programs, you need to ensure that there is a fit with your organisation’s goals and culture.  Don’t cut back on working from home (or implement ROWE, for that matter) without understanding how it will help your organisation achieve its’ goals – and keep in mind that your organisation’s goals are going to be significantly different from those of either Best Buy or Yahoo.