Examining Marissa Mayer’s Out-of-Office Message to Yahoo Employees

Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

The business case for telecommuting was established more than two decades ago.

No doubt Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer knows that. I’m guessing that in the days and weeks leading up to her recent call to ban telecommuting at the search engine giant she considered 20-year-old-plus arguments favoring thousands of her employees working remotely.

You know: Telecommuting is a strategic tool, it empowers employees to create flexible solutions, the technology is available, results can be measured … They are all legitimate arguments with case history that dates back to at least 1991. That’s as far back as our online archives go—back to the days when Workforce was called Personnel Journal. And sure enough, there’s a reference to telecommuting in a story about Marriott’s corporate culture.

You could also argue that telecommuting’s origins lie just up the 101 from Yahoo’s corporate headquarters at Silicon Valley neighbor Hewlett-Packard. In 1967, the pioneering computer-maker allowed its plant in Germany to offer flextime—a truly radical concept for its time. HP then implemented large-scale telecommuting in the mid-1990s as technology advanced.

And from its earliest days after being founded in 1994 Yahoo has employed legions of telecommuters. So Mayer—a Stanford University grad, by the way—is no stranger to the culture of a remote workforce.

Mayer’s decision leaves no doubt that she believes the merits of telecommuting are outweighed by the other side of the argument: Collaboration truly happens at the office. That chance meetings at the water cooler and tooling down the halls on a Razor scooter help push innovation.

It also implies that Yahoo’s previous commitment to telecommuting created a bloated, lazy and unproductive remote workforce. Will Mayer’s office-centric edict change that? By permanently etching a line not only across Yahoo’s addiction to telecommuting but through a massive sector of the workforce who work out of the office, this is a defining moment of her career.

If indeed Mayer and her HR boss, Jacqueline Reses, have done their homework on overhauling a workforce, they should understand that merely swinging the doors wide open and offering a posh cafeteria and shiny new smartphones won’t make collaboration happen overnight.

I don’t think I am overstating it by saying Yahoo’s culture shift is like building a brand-new workforce from scratch—a team of thousands at that. First, construction crews are going to be working 24/7 to facilitate a horde of new employees in an office setting. Then there are the inevitable technology glitches (and they will happen) that will impair the workforce for weeks, if not months, driving stress to dangerous levels.

But before they knock down that first wall, has Yahoo management considered office culture? Who gets seats near the window—employees or managers? Trust me, that’s a big deal.

They also better realize that some employees won’t play nice together. Try as you might to establish a friendly, open, warm environment, the bottom line is no good deed goes unpunished. Personalities will clash.

It’s people management 101, and hopefully Reses already has her HR team equipping managers with the training to put out every office fire from perfume policies to flaps over the office candy dish.

Learning personalities, nuancing situations and creating a team atmosphere will take time. And lots of patience. When teamwork clicks it’s a thing of beauty. It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters run circles around the Washington Generals.

Whether intended or not, Mayer’s declaration to collaborate in person rather than cooperate virtually is turning Yahoo into a large-scale laboratory overhauling its corporate culture.

I’m glad I can watch the experiment play out—remotely. Because I don’t think I’d want to be a one of the lab rats at Yahoo.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. Contact him at rbell@workforce.com.