July 28, 2014

Leadership, Culture and the Situation of Marissa Mayer

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marissa_new4Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, sent a shock wave across the internet and the blogosphere last weekend when she announced that Yahoo’s policy of allowing people to work remotely would be ended, and that remote-working employees would need to begin reporting to the office by June 2013.

The debate has raged over the wisdom of the move, with a heaping ton of criticism coming from culture-change advocates who point to research indicating that remote work programs are beneficial, while the other side of the coin points to lost engagement and productivity.  A short, quick summary of the debate can be found over on the Huffington Post:

What I find interesting is that, in an era when so many are advocating culture as the basis for an organization’s effectiveness, as well as the need for leadership to take charge of establishing that culture, that so much criticism is being thrown at Mayer for her decision.  All this even as some insiders report that the move was utterly necessary because the work-from-home policy had created more problems than it solved, and the abuses of the policy were significant.

All of the admonitions and warnings and tirades thrown at Mayer, or in support of her, all seem to be coming from outside the company – by folks who have a voice, but who are not, necessarily, informed.  Like them, I do not know Marissa Mayer.  Unlike them, however, I won’t assume that she’s a short-sighted crazy person or an idiot.  Her ideas do have some merit, even if we disagree with them.

What’s daunting, however, is what we are seeing is a high-profile CEO doing what everyone is demanding of high-profile CEOs – to take bold steps and to lead an organization through the establishment of a company culture.  If Mayer believes that her organization will perform best when people are interacting face-to-face, then she must act with integrity and follow her beliefs by bringing that dynamic into her organization.  It has become the stuff of many an article and business school essay at places like Facebook and Google.

Of course, that’s also exactly where the problem lies.  Mayer is attempting to benchmark against other organizations and believes that worked over there will also work at Yahoo.  That’s a bit short-sighted, however, it’s also the exact same dynamic being offered by her critics – finding the best case example of a situation just like your preferred alternative, and then using that as evidence that the alternative is the right one.  For example, the creators of ROWE responded to Yahoo’s policy decision with an Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, citing The Gap as an organization that has done well by implementing ROWE.  Unfortunately, you can’t claim the Gap’s implementation of ROWE was a success and ignore the fact that performance at Best Buy, where ROWE was created, just sucks.

Likewise, you can’t say this was the right move and not wonder why there was not a declaration of the need to identify the root cause of these behaviors.  If people are abusing the system and failing to collaborate – face time might not be the root cause.  There is likely something else going on.  Perhaps that something else can be attended to by having people co-located, or maybe not.  Fact of the matter is, none of us knows for sure, and all anyone is contributing is an opinion, if not an agenda.

There is clearly a clash of cultures occurring as well, as most of the criticism is coming from tech/software/internet company founders and their employees who have embraced remote work.  Others outside of the tech community are much more supportive of the move.  If we believe the insider’s view, then this was the right move for Yahoo at this time – and maybe it is, or maybe it is not.  What the critics themselves should be chastised for is campaigning for executives to lead and set the tone within their organizations and then criticize those same leaders for not setting the tone the critics preferred.

The truth is that no one knows if this will be the right move.  It is, quite clearly, going to be something of an experiment.  Those who believe remote work, in general, is a good thing based on their experience or beliefs and, therefore, a good thing for Yahoo are about to have that hypothesis tested.  On the other side of the debate, those who advocate face-to-face interaction as the core that fuels innovation, will also have their theory tested.  What all must do now is what everyone who has conducted an experiment must always do – establish the parameters of the experiment and observe the results.

If Yahoo’s performance improves over time then we will have evidence over which to debate this decision, and not just relentless opinion.  If, however, it turns out that the performance of the company declines, then we’ll know that the performance problem was not due to attendance, but to other, deeper flaws in the management of the company.  Either way, some years from now when the evidence is available, I suspect no measure will be given to the dynamics of the system and I’m certain Marissa Mayer will either be celebrated or blamed.

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  • curiouscat_com

    i haven’t looked into it much so my impression may well be wrong but the thing I find annoying is what seems like a lack of respect for people and evidence.

    I understand there may be good reason for physical workplaces. I find the decision to dramatically change so quickly everywhere questionable.

    Has this gone through PDSA to show that yes this is the way Yahoo should be? Could it be that it costs Yahoo too much talent? Could it be that we can have some people effectively contribute remotely? Such a drastic change I think is very risky. I am skeptical it is necessary to take such risks instead of experimenting more to gain evidence that a universal policy against remote work is really best.

    Even if the policy change is good in every other way, it has to make someone considering working for Yahoo question if Yahoo is going to dramatically shift the employment agreement with seemingly little concern for people.

    • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

      You are reading my mind a little bit. I would like to see, rather than this grand experiment (we can easily call it a gamble), a more controlled experiment trying to determine if remote work is, indeed, prohibiting the type of culture yahoo desires from developing. I will give Kudos, however, for placing culture and the need to develop that culture at the forefront. We will see if this move was a necessary shove in the right direction or just heavy handed cluelessness

  • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

    You are reading my mind a little bit. I would like to see, rather than this grand experiment (we can easily call it a gamble), a more controlled experiment trying to determine if remote work is, indeed, prohibiting the type of culture yahoo desires from developing. I will give Kudos, however, for placing culture and the need to develop that culture at the forefront. We will see if this move was a necessary shove in the right direction or just heavy handed cluelessness.

  • http://myflexiblepencil.com David M. Kasprzak

    If yahoo has no talent left, Mayer has nothing to work with and leaving her there won’t do anything different than throwing her out. Nonetheless, the point is this – if all we do is criticize from a distance, we take the easy route. Anyone can point a finger at a problem, real or perceived.