Did Yahoo's Mayer Slap Social In The Face?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's edict that all Yahoo employees must work in the office doesn't please social business technology fans. But Yahoo insists this is about much more than social.

Debra Donston-Miller, Contributor

February 27, 2013

6 Min Read

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Social business applications are designed to enable workplaces to collaborate no matter where employees are located, including their homes. So, is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's recent edict that all Yahoo employees must work in the office a slap in the face of social business? Or is it a sign that social business -- and social media in general -- has ironically made human beings less social, with Yahoo among the first of many companies that will take course-correcting action?

Earlier this week, a memo from Yahoo HR head Jackie Reses to staff was leaked. Announcing a new rule sent down by Mayer, the memo said in part, "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." Starting in June, any Yahoo employee who is currently working from home will have to work full time in a Yahoo office. This apparently applies to employees working full time from home and those with flexible work arrangements who currently work part of the time at home and part of the time in an office.

The Yahoo memo touched off a firestorm of response. And that's not surprising, since Mayer's new rule seems to fly in the face of pretty much every major new technology category -- and evolution -- that has emerged in the last several years. Cloud. Mobile. Social. Each of these technologies, and all of them taken together, has enabled employees in the 21st century workplace to work more flexibly and, theoretically, more effectively. These technologies have removed time and geography boundaries.

[ Will social enter your company through the back door or will you face it head on? Read 5 Social Business Predictions For 2013. ]

But the language in the Yahoo memo seems to imply that unless people are in the same physical workspace, they cannot be truly effective. So, one might extrapolate, social business software can be truly effective only if there is also some literal face-to-face, elbow-to-elbow interaction occurring.

Although Yahoo's new stance toward working from home is not directly an indictment of social media, it certainly doesn't stand as a ringing endorsement. It's also among some signs of social media backlash that we have been seeing lately. For example, journalist and author Julia Angwin recently wrote an article explaining why she had decided to unfriend everyone that she was friends with on Facebook. The reasons, she wrote, have a lot to do with Facebook's inability to provide adequate privacy protection, as well as a lack of "contextual integrity," a concept developed by NYU professor Helen Nissenbaum. Angwin explains contextual integrity in her post as a fancy way of saying that when she shares information with a certain group or friend on Facebook, she is often surprised by where the data ends up.

Not knowing where data will end up or how it will be interpreted is an issue with any form of electronic communication, but it's perhaps magnified with social because of the speed and breadth of communication, not to mention limited levels of control over information.

Which brings us back to the benefits of face-to-face interaction. When you can see a person's facial expressions and hear the subtle changes in voice that add context to a message, there's less chance that you will misunderstand that person. And, if there is a misunderstanding, it's far easier and faster to correct it if you and the person are in the same room. With the recent presidential election and, heck, even the Academy Awards, how many times did you see comment streams on Facebook and Twitter devolve into virtual fisticuffs? The people in the middle of those battles very likely would have acted differently -- more politely and thoughtfully -- if they were speaking with other people face-to-face.

I've been on both sides of the workplace equation. In the old days, I went to the office every day. My commute was an hour (on a good day) each way. I started working from home a day or so a week when my older daughter was born. That was 20 years ago, and I communicated by dial-up email and fax machine. It was brutal, and, no, I wasn't more productive. But I was certainly a happier employee, and one who was able to better juggle the responsibilities of a career and a family.

Toward the end of my tenure at my last staff position, I worked from home full time. With IM, PDFs, my smartphone, high-speed wireless and, yes, social media, I could do pretty much anything at home that I could do in the office. I could also do it just as fast, if not faster, and I didn't lose hours each day in my car. On the downside, I sometimes felt disenfranchised, and I know that I missed important information that was relayed as my colleagues who were in the office passed each other in the halls or happened to meet at the soda machine.

In the end, I think that social business technology -- if implemented with specific goals in mind and when managed effectively -- has improved worker productivity. Most companies list as the No. 1 benefit of social business software the ability for geographically dispersed workers to effectively collaborate and communicate.

I think that Mayer will come to rescind, or at least soften, her directive. I can only imagine the frustration and resentment that Yahoo employees must be feeling today, not to mention the distraction. This is quite the opposite of what Mayer was setting out to achieve as "one Yahoo!"

Yahoo late yesterday released a statement in the wake of all the brouhaha around its no-work-from-home policy, with a spokesperson saying, "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home -- this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now." Indeed, Yahoo -- and Mayer -- is in a make-it-or-break-it situation, and desperate times call for desperate measures, which this action reeks of.

What do you think of Yahoo's new no-work-from-home policy? Do you think social business is helping or hurting worker productivity? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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About the Author(s)

Debra Donston-Miller


Freelance writer Debra Donston-Miller was previously editor of eWEEK and executive editorial manager of eWEEK Labs. She can be reached at [email protected].

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