No, Yahoo! was not justified

Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, recently ordered all employees to work on site at Yahoo’s premises. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” stated her memo, according to press reports. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.

For many of us in the high tech industry, especially in the Silicon Valley, the concept of a defined workplace or workday has long been obsolete with many of us tethered to work via phones, mobile devices and laptops accompanying us, enabling us to work global work hours. The mobile revolution fueled by smart phones, iPads, Tablets and remote collaboration tools such as Webex and MS Live Meeting, has made many of today’s workers stay perpetually on the job and connected to each other regardless of time and place.

Let us get it straight—working from home is not a perk or a benefit today—it has become a necessity because work/life balance is not what it used to be decades ago.

For example, I tried, really tried, very desperately tried, to get to my work site—all of last week since we had a major project run into issues, just as it was about to go live.  I failed to make it to work, since my work day literally began at 5 a.m. and went on till past midnight.  Much as I would have loved to interact and banter with my team at the coffee counter—I could not since most of my team is in Asia and in particular, India.

My work day often follows a global time zone, with little consideration for the Pacific Time zone where I live and work! This is not an unusual experience for many of us operating in global teams across time zones.

According to TeleworkNetworkResearch.com, telecommuters increased the number of multiple days per week by 73% between 2005-2011. The same study also says that if those with compatible jobs worked from home just half the time, a typical employer would save $11,000 per employee per year, the oil savings would equate to 37% of Persian Gulf imports, and the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire workforce of New York off the roads.

A synthesis of over 500 studies by Global Workplace Analytics on flexible telecommuting has revealed many tangible benefits for employers ranging from recruiting top talent, reducing attrition, increased employee productivity of 35-40% and loss avoidance of over $600 billion a year in workplace distractions.

Not all jobs can and should be done remotely. However, having a flexible work at home policy is a win-win for both the employer and the employee and today’s mobile connectivity and collaboration tools make that possible.

Rameysh Ramdas, an SF Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.


Yes, Yahoo! was justified

According to the Bureau of Labor, 2.1 million workers were laid off by companies in 2009.  In 2012, Bank of America and Hewlett Packard announced layoffs of 25,000+ employees each. And companies have been laying off workers every year in between.  No blame is pinned on executives of the companies when these layoffs occur.

But, as soon as Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, announced in a company-wide email that employees were required to come in to work, instead of working from home, dozens of articles critical of her decision were unleashed. Talk shows were abuzz with ridicule. Why is it okay for companies to layoff people in relative anonymity while asking employees to meet at work is met with disdain?

I don’t know the inner workings of Yahoo! or what ails the company.  But I do know someone who does.  And that is Marissa Mayer.  She is trying to prevent layoffs. By now, she certainly knows—or should, what needs to done to fix the company’s products and resuscitate its flailing stock. Innovation or lack thereof has to be at or near the top of that list.

While much is made of the globally, multi-connected workforce, innovation does not happen in a vaccum or in the ether space of the internet.  If it did, no startup company would rent office space.

Face to face contact is an essential ingredient to the movement of ideas.

In fact several thinkers, and notably Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, have complained about the lack of innovation in the United States since the information age started in the 80s.

Clearly, the information technology that we are wedded to is neither necessary nor sufficient to innovate.  For all the publicity surrounding flexible work schedules, according to a recent study, only one in six workers say they work at least one day a week from home.  This shows that only sustaining and routine tasks and highly specialized individual contributors can get work done when not present physically at work.  Further, such routine tasks have typically been outsourced to lower cost regions leaving behind a very lean workforce in the United States.

It is not only physical presence that is important for collaboration and innovation but mental presence. We live in a world of distractions. It takes an extremely disciplined and engaged employee to put in his/her full potential from home, let alone collaborate and innovate! There are many social connection tools and other gadgets that could potentially take up mind space. Unless, there is systematic oversight, these distractions could reduce productivity.

So more power to the Yahoo! CEO in trying to change things up.  While change can be maddening, doing the same thing, and expecting different results is insanity.

Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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