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Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer just banned working at home. But she's a CEO of a company in need of turnaround, not an IT leader.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has banned working at home for her "Yahoos," in the name of improving productivity and collaboration. As InformationWeek's Rob Preston noted yesterday, this was not a societal referendum on working at home. This was one CEO making a call about what was best for one company at one moment in time, and as Preston put it, setting a tone for change.

Let's be clear: Mayer is not a CIO. She is a CEO. Her first job must be to turn around that company's performance.

Most CIOs are in a different place. When I meet them in the course of my work, they share their first worry early and often: finding, grooming and keeping talented people. And there's no question that most CIOs must have the telecommuting option at their disposal. If companies start banning working at home en masse, it will put a whole lot of CIOs at an awful disadvantage.

[ Did Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer just slap social technologies in the face? See what InformationWeek's Debra Donston-Miller has to say. ]

I'm thinking about the IT leader at a rural Texas hospital group who told me she was going crazy trying to find the right cloud and virtualization people in her area, until she realized the solution to her problem is telecommuting. She could bang her head against the wall trying to get people to move, or she could find people who could do that work from afar, she told me.

I'm thinking of my recent meeting with a service provider that modernizes legacy applications to run in the cloud, securely. It does a lot of business in Hartford these days, with insurance companies -- because hotshot developers aren't clamoring to live in Hartford. But insurance company CIOs need hotshot developers.

Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, which specializes in recruiting CIOs and IT leaders, tells me, "The No. 1 skill in IT leadership right now is the relationships they can build with people in the company. CIOs have an issue right now where they can't find people to report to them with that skill. You can't build that at home."

On the other hand, she says, "You are going to lose some people. For some people, having the ability to work at home is important to them because peoples' lives are complicated and the more flexibility they have, the happier they will be and the longer they will stay."

Can effective collaboration happen among a network of far-flung workers? This of course depends on the industry and the particular workers. I was relieved to see Preston say in his column Thursday that telecommuting has worked for our company, given that I have remotely managed an editorial team for him for almost two years now. We have hatched many creative ideas via IM and over the phone. But can remote collaboration work well in an IT setting? Heller says that's the wrong question. "Whether it can happen or whether it is happening are two different things," she says. Clearly, Mayer decided it wasn't happening at Yahoo, Heller says.

Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder wrote in his analysis of Mayer's decision that an examination of Yahoo financials showed lower employee productivity compared with Mayer's previous employer, Google. That finding doesn't suggest a company that collaborates well. Perhaps better technology and strategy choices could have helped, Gownder wrote. "For most businesses, managing and, indeed, empowering remote workers will be a key competency in the next 10 years," he says.

But CIOs can't just roll out great collaboration technology and watch the results roll in. "You need a plan," Heller says. "You can't say: 'You 50 people at home, here's Yammer, go to it.'"

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IT leaders must listen to the voices from the trenches before they make a blanket decision on telecommuting. In the InformationWeek 2013 U.S. Salary Survey, IT staffers rank "telecommuting/working at home" only 11th out of 24 job factors, behind pay, flexible work schedules, having opinion and knowledge valued and job atmosphere. A sizable 43% cite flexible work schedules as a priority. (I suspect many people define "flexible work schedules" as not only flexible hours, but also occasional telecommuting.)

Our columnist Jonathan Feldman, who serves as CIO of a city in North Carolina, says flexibility is key. "It's not so much the telecommuting as the flexibility to do so," he says. "Different things matter to different people. I've got folks for whom it would be a deal breaker to never be able to telecommute and/or have a flex schedule." (See Feldman's recent column for more advice on IT leadership failures that cause employees to leave.)

In my mind, issuing an overall ban on telecommuting, as Mayer has done, is a tremendous disadvantage for IT managers trying to attract and retain talent.

Will Mayer drive some talented people away from Yahoo with this decision? Certainly. Will she turn around the culture and productivity problems at Yahoo with this decision? That remains to be seen.

Some Yahoo-watchers have speculated that this is Mayer doing a layoff without having to do a layoff. If that's her intention, this tactic isn't any more or less kind than doing an actual layoff. Mayer's job right now isn't to be kind. It's to save Yahoo.

Your job as an IT leader and talent manager is something else entirely. Think twice about blanket edicts that limit your flexibility.

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User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 11:16:09 PM
re: Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?
Good point John, the company is the CEO's to do as they feel is best for the future of the firm. And also true that if other firms in Silicon Valley are offering flex work arrangements, they might be at a disadvantage. Anyway, the future of Yahoo! isn't going to rise and fall based on telecommuting. They have some more serious fundamental challenges remaining.
John Foley
John Foley,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 9:09:25 PM
re: Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?
I have no argument with a CEO who determines that all hands on deck are needed in the office to make things work. I'm sure there are hundreds of companies like that. That said, it seems that would really limit the company in terms of available talent, which would bring its own set of challenges. Depends on company, corporate culture, geography, and available talent.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 8:46:27 PM
re: Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?
There are PLENTY of tools now to make remote collaboration a breeze, much more so than even five years ago. Dropbox, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, Skype, screen sharing like, productivity measurement tools like MySammy, remote time card iPhone apps, the good ol' fashioned Terminal Server or GotomyPC. Not to mention with smartphones and Blackberries, people are almost always at the employers' beck and call anyway. Considering studies show that most telecommuters put in more hours of work than office staff, maybe one day employees will all be longing for the days when they could actually leave work at work.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 8:15:59 PM
re: Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?
So, if this is a necessary move to create the needed culture, sense of urgency, creativity, collaboration, etc., that can only come from face-to-face interaction, then it has to truly apply across the board, correct? By that logic, no more outsourcing jobs to India or any other offshore location. I don't know to what level Yahoo! may have offshore operations, but isn't it just as important for anyone performing work for Yahoo! from Bangalore, Mumbai, etc. to be physically present in the California office?

I'm thinking those of us in IT might want to support this move at all companies. It may not be convenient for those who have to resume a commute to the office, but it should bring thousands of IT jobs back onshore for American IT workers. Right, business executives?
User Rank: Apprentice
3/1/2013 | 8:01:15 PM
re: Yahoo Flap: Should IT Leaders Ban Work At Home?
I think telecommuting is a necessity for many of us. It is also a worldwide trend. It allows company to recruit and retain talents and many other benefits. Many studies actually show telecommuters are actually more productive. Therefore, it is a surprise that technology companies like Yahoo bans their employees from telecommuting.

In a recent event at Sydney, Google CFO Patrick Pichette said that teleworking is not encouraged at Google. It is conceivable Marissa Mayer bring her Google belief over to Yahoo. It is also possible she is using this opportunity to establish authority at Yahoo to save this sinking ship. Even this ban may be considered as Yahoo's own internal affair, it is a shame that tech giant like Google or Yahoo can't make telecommuting work for their employee. They are the leaders that set examples for the rest of us to follow. The examples they set here is definitely not encouraging.

I think the bottom line is whether manager can measure their telecommuting employees' performance without seeing face to face. There are plenty employees performance measurement solutions out there on the market to address this kind of issue. I use MySammy and allow some of my employees to work remotely. There are other products like Rescuetime can do the same. If company can make telecommuting works, it is really a win-win-win solution for the employees, employers and the society.
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