Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer just banned working at home. But she's a CEO of a company in need of turnaround, not an IT leader
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has banned working at home for her "Yahoos," in the name of improving productivity and collaboration. As InformationWeek's Rob Preston noted yesterday, this was not a societal referendum on working at home. This was one CEO making a call about what was best for one company at one moment in time, and as Preston put it, setting a tone for change.
Let's be clear: Mayer is not a CIO. She is a CEO. Her first job must be to turn around that company's performance.
Most CIOs are in a different place. When I meet them in the course of my work, they share their first worry early and often: finding, grooming and keeping talented people. And there's no question that most CIOs must have the telecommuting option at their disposal. If companies start banning working at home en masse, it will put a whole lot of CIOs at an awful disadvantage.
I'm thinking about the IT leader at a rural Texas hospital group who told me she was going crazy trying to find the right cloud and virtualization people in her area, until she realized the solution to her problem is telecommuting. She could bang her head against the wall trying to get people to move, or she could find people who could do that work from afar, she told me.
I'm thinking of my recent meeting with a service provider that modernizes legacy applications to run in the cloud, securely. It does a lot of business in Hartford these days, with insurance companies -- because hotshot developers aren't clamoring to live in Hartford. But insurance company CIOs need hotshot developers.
Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, which specializes in recruiting CIOs and IT leaders, tells me, "The No. 1 skill in IT leadership right now is the relationships they can build with people in the company. CIOs have an issue right now where they can't find people to report to them with that skill. You can't build that at home."
On the other hand, she says, "You are going to lose some people. For some people, having the ability to work at home is important to them because peoples' lives are complicated and the more flexibility they have, the happier they will be and the longer they will stay."
Can effective collaboration happen among a network of far-flung workers? This of course depends on the industry and the particular workers. I was relieved to see Preston say in his column Thursday that telecommuting has worked for our company, given that I have remotely managed an editorial team for him for almost two years now. We have hatched many creative ideas via IM and over the phone. But can remote collaboration work well in an IT setting? Heller says that's the wrong question. "Whether it can happen or whether it is happening are two different things," she says. Clearly, Mayer decided it wasn't happening at Yahoo, Heller says.
Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder wrote in his analysis of Mayer's decision that an examination of Yahoo financials showed lower employee productivity compared with Mayer's previous employer, Google. That finding doesn't suggest a company that collaborates well. Perhaps better technology and strategy choices could have helped, Gownder wrote. "For most businesses, managing and, indeed, empowering remote workers will be a key competency in the next 10 years," he says.
But CIOs can't just roll out great collaboration technology and watch the results roll in. "You need a plan," Heller says. "You can't say: 'You 50 people at home, here's Yammer, go to it.'
IT leaders must listen to the voices from the trenches before they make a blanket decision on telecommuting. In the InformationWeek 2013 U.S. Salary Survey, IT staffers rank "telecommuting/working at home" only 11th out of 24 job factors, behind pay, flexible work schedules, having opinion and knowledge valued and job atmosphere. A sizable 43 percent cite flexible work schedules as a priority.
Our columnist Jonathan Feldman, who serves as CIO of a city in North Carolina, says flexibility is key. "It's not so much the telecommuting as the flexibility to do so," he says. "Different things matter to different people. I've got folks for whom it would be a deal breaker to never be able to telecommute and/or have a flex schedule."
In my mind, issuing an overall ban on telecommuting, as Mayer has done, is a tremendous disadvantage for IT managers trying to attract and retain talent.
Will Mayer drive some talented people away from Yahoo with this decision? Certainly. Will she turn around the culture and productivity problems at Yahoo with this decision? That remains to be seen.
Some Yahoo-watchers have speculated that this is Mayer doing a layoff without having to do a layoff. If that's her intention, this tactic isn't any more or less kind than doing an actual layoff. Mayer's job right now isn't to be kind. It's to save Yahoo.
Your job as an IT leader and talent manager is something else entirely. Think twice about blanket edicts that limit your flexibility.