A Spoonful Of Sugar Won’t Help Bad News Go Down

Anthony Guerra, Editor-in-Chief, hsCIO.com

Anthony Guerra, Editor-in-Chief, hsCIO.com

“Hey, I’m sorry to do this, but I can’t do Nutley tomorrow. I need to take Scarlett to the doctor,” read the text from Kate.

By “Nutley,” she was referring to Nutley, NJ, a fairly central location where we meet up once a week for some in-person time.

“Don’t give it a second thought,” I wrote, knowing full well the stress that lay behind her text, “I hope she’s ok. Thanks.”

Kate and I meet up once a week because our geographic proximity allows it, and because I do think there is value in face-to-face time. With Nancy based in Colorado, it likely won’t be more than a few times a year we get to sit in the same room, though we talk every day (often multiple times), not to mention exchanging a barrage of emails. On days we are all working at our individual locations — Kate and Nancy in their homes, and me in my office, I think we are all tremendously productive.

Think about it — when I was working in NYC every day, I slogged through what was at least a 1.5 hour commute each way, often reaching work exhausted. Now, I can put those reclaimed hours back into my work. With each member of our team enjoying similar efficiencies, we essentially have another person worth of productivity on the payroll. And working remotely has other benefits too, such as fewer interruptions and a reduction of the nonsense stop-by-someone’s-office-and-gossip time that we all know goes on.

We are a lean, mean, remote machine. And that, at a very important level, is my main function, and is the function of any leader or manager — to provide an environment where their team members can be at their best. It’s about what’s best for them, not what’s easiest for me, not about being able to see them from 9-5 so I know they are “working.” The old concept of a factory foreman monitoring his minions as they punch in an out is the stalest of management concepts.

Except, apparently, at Yahoo, where only seeing someone at their desk means believing they’re on the job. About a week ago, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the ironically titled EVP of People and Development Jackie Reses decreed that all work-from-home arrangements were cancelled.

Not surprisingly, the email is labeled: “YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD.” Of course, one can imagine this held little sway with the dismayed recipients. Reses began with some self-congratulatory talk about the “great benefits” of recently instituted HR programs, like “PB&J.” She then went on to proclaim: “I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices,” after which she summarily diffused it by insulting the work ethic of every remote employee in the company. I suppose Yahoo needed the room.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” The English translation of this, immediately understood by those it affected, was: “We all know you don’t do much at home. You goof off, take a long lunch and probably catch ‘The View.’ Either way, we can’t see you, so we don’t know for sure. That means you better start getting in here like the rest of us. Enjoy the traffic, Yahoos!”

The memo ends on a rah-rah note that irritates infinitely more than it salves: “Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.”

Methinks what’s to come for Yahoo — not to mention the careers of Mayer and Reses — is far from the best. From a leadership point of view, this move seems almost embarrassing, and the result will be turnover. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but the morale of each and every employee affected by the memo (and most who are not) is utterly destroyed. As with all across-the-board edicts of this variety, the humanization, the personalization of the employer-employee relationship, has been eliminated.

Those who have options (the A players) will leave. The rest will stay, infinitely embittered at being treated like children. Do you really think those ordered back to the nest will arrive on day one with energy and buzz in tow, eager to engage in the impromptu, and apparently infinitely beneficial, bull sessions Mayer and Reses anticipate? And how do you think all this will affect Yahoo’s overall performance as an organization?

The solution to all this, and to so much management difficultly, lies in the hiring process. If HR does the job it should and only brings on A players, it will never have to do the type of dirty job Yahoo has just done. A job so bilious, mind you, that no amount of PB&J can make it sweet.


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  1. Anthony,
    As the CEO of an all remote company (Iatric Systems) for over 23 years, I’m trying to resist the urge to say this is a decision by a bunch of Yahoos. Forgetting all the other issues, a remote office environment makes it much easier to recruit the best people. They all don’t have to live in Boston or Texas or any other place. Its really surprising given the respect in the industry for Marissa. On the other hand, I’m not really sure what Yahoo is selling any more. Are you?

  2. Barry Blumenfeld says:

    Usually when I read your column I find myself saying “yes, that is so true”. But I’m not sure I agree with with today’s column regarding the Yahoo position on working at home. Yes – it is possible to work remotely, and in some cases it is both more effective and efficient, especially when you take into account the lack of any commute, fewer distractions, etc. However, having worked remotely at several high tech endeavors in recent years where my team is literally scattered across the globe, I have found that there is also a cost. You lose the ability to watch body language and there is definitely not the same level of collaboration between team members that can be achieved in person. I’ve also found that the level of attention is not the same. Be honest with yourself – how many times have you participated on a conference call while simultaneously emailing, chatting, or even conducting a second call on your cell while your office phone is on mute? It does not make for a quality interaction. So I applaud Yahoo for taking on what has become a dirty secret. Perhaps their approach is heavy handed, but all things being equal, there are many cases when working remotely is neither as efficient, or as effective, as good old fashioned face to face discussion, even when you do factor in the travel time.

    • Anthony Guerra says:

      Thanks for your comment Barry. I still wish this had been done at the individual level. Certainly, there are some folks who, through poor performance, have lost the right to work from home. Of course, I’m not sure why you’d want them coming into the office, instead of just letting them go.

  3. Anthony Guerra says:

    Good point. Many people I have talked to say she had to do something. Well, if your boat is sinking and “just to do something” you make the hole bigger, I don’t see how that helps anything. Thanks for your comment!

  4. rschleichert says:

    One thing you can always bet on is there are multiple sides to an issue. Leaders deal with it everyday. It sometimes takes time to present.

    In Yahoo’s case, the smoking gun is the VPN logs of the remote staff.

    • Anthony Guerra says:

      Thanks for your comment. I would say to keep in mind that the “remote staff” is not one monolithic entity, but rather made up of individuals. If Yahoo had information that allowed drilling down to the employee level, they should have used it to make surgical adjustments, rather than debilitating amputations.

      Thanks again!

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