Yahoo Flap Misses The Bigger Point

New CEO Marissa Mayer wants all company employees to work in the office. This isn't about exercising control; it's about setting a tone for change.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is under fire for doing the unthinkable: She's requiring company employees to actually work at the workplace.

That's right. In an era when just about everyone but coal miners and longshoremen thinks telecommuting is their birthright, Mayer is ordering all of Yahoo's 11,500 employees to show up at the office every day, starting in June.

The rationale: Employees become more creative and innovative when they work together face to face rather than over email, IM, video chats, wikis and other virtual means. "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings," Yahoo HR director Jackie Reses wrote in a memo to employees, obtained and posted by All Things D. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together."

Besides collaboration, there's another "c" word in play here: culture. It can be tough to build and maintain a strong, cohesive one when a good number of employees (it's at least several hundred in the case of Yahoo) rarely make their way to campus. Perhaps Mayer, a former Google executive on the job at Yahoo for only seven months, found the collegial energy lacking during her early tours of the company's offices.

Or maybe she just decided to shake up the status quo. Clearly, the old way of doing things wasn't paying rich dividends for the Internet company, given its stagnant revenue and earnings. Yahoo's stock price has popped of late -- closing at $21.16 Wednesday, near its four-year high -- only because Mayer has refreshed the company's email, photo-sharing and other products while a revamped board considers acquisitions (mobile, anyone?) as well as divestitures of non-core assets in Asia and elsewhere.

By requiring all employees to work in the office, Mayer is making a statement: We're all in this together. If Yahoo doesn't have your full attention, seek employment elsewhere.

While critics complain that Mayer is being less than hospitable to working parents, especially mothers (Mayer herself gave birth to her first child last fall), she didn't take the job to break glass ceilings or champion work-life balance. Her job is to turn Yahoo around, and she's taking her best shot. This isn't about exercising control; it's about setting a tone for change.

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This situation reminds me of my own experience with new corporate management a bunch of years ago. The CEO of our new parent company observed at the time that our offices felt more like a stodgy bank than a vibrant media company, so he ordered a wholesale remodeling, to an open floor plan. No more rat's nest of offices, but a wide open environment where everyone could see -- and collaborate with -- everyone else with relative ease.

I didn't like the idea. I told our business unit CEO at the time that it wouldn't work: not enough privacy, not enough space for our supplies, too much intermingling of church and state disciplines, too many blasted distractions.

And I was dead wrong (and later admitted as much to our CEO). Yeah, the open office can be loud and distracting at times. But that's part of the beauty. There's a new energy about the place. We collaborate more. We grab people for ad hoc conversations, when before we would have huddled over our computers in solitude. We get to know people we used to just nod at in the hallway.

We needed a shake-up, and most of us couldn't see that at the time. We do in hindsight.

Give Marissa Mayer a little slack. All companies and cultures are different. Mayer has more insight into what Yahoo needs than the work-at-home true believers. Telecommuting policies might serve Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Aetna and myriad other companies (including my own) quite well, but they might not work for Yahoo at this point in its transformation. As the company said in a statement on Tuesday, amid the backlash: "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home -- this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now."