Yahoo and Remote Employees

For the last three and a half years I've been working from home, so the news that Yahoo is bringing all remote employees back into their offices is of particular interest and concern to me.

Yahoo has been foundering for years. They seem to have too many employees for what they do, and extended themselves into all kinds of businesses that didn't advance their core business and then just parked them. And I'm not even sure what their core business is anymore. But I believe they still have potential. They know how to scale, know how to run big web properties, and I think with the right direction, could be great again. And I think Marissa Mayer is that great direction. I've been very impressed with everything she's done with Yahoo so far.

There is some value to having employees on a team together in the same building, no doubt. But there is also value to the benefits that having employees working from home bring. Working from home is great for morale, great for work-life balance, and in my case anyway, makes it much easier to get some work done in the evening once the kids are in bed. I don't lose an hour or more a day to a commute, spend less on gas, and just enjoy the flexibility. The end result is I'm a happier and more productive employee.

Business Insider has an article that talks about the reasons behind Yahoo's move. It says many of the remote employees weren't productive and weren't valuable employees - essentially insinuating that the remote employees who quit because of the required move back into the office are folks worth getting rid of.

The people that quit when you make this sort of move are the people who won't have a problem finding a job elsewhere. Those are the people you don't want to quit. You might get some slackers who move back into the office and suddenly become valuable employees, but I bet that's a pretty small minority.

But here's the thing. A remote employee is still an employee, and should be managed and evaluated the same as everyone else. If you have remote employees that are getting away with being unproductive, you have a management problem. Employees in cubicles can be unproductive too, and if your team managers aren't aware of what every employee is doing and how well they're doing at it, then that's your problem. It's not about where they sit.

The argument that face time is important and fosters collaboration is valid, but in a big company, it's quite common for teams to be spread out geographically already, through different campuses. At Adobe, my immediate team members consisted of folks from Ireland, India, San Jose and Ottawa. Unless Mayer is talking about also migrating all the members of a team to the same campus, I think that may be a bit of a red herring.

What concerns me, and what prompted me to write this post, is John Gruber's take on this over at Daring Fireball:

Yahoo needs a kick in the ass. Mayer is not merely trying to keep Yahoo limping along; she’s trying to lead Yahoo to kick some ass. Same old, same old isn’t going to get them there.

You could say this about any change. Making everyone at Yahoo switch to Windows Phone smartphones would be a change too, but IMHO wouldn't be a good one. Problem is, if Mayer does succeed in turning Yahoo around, I'm afraid this move will be regarded as one of the reasons for the success.

This is a tactical move that Mayer believes will help with a corporate culture problem that's specific to Yahoo, but I'm afraid it could turn into a trend.

Update: It looks like Best Buy has used Yahoo's announcement as a cover to make the same announcement themselves. Best Buy is another company that seems to be foundering and may be looking for ways to cut costs, but still, I don't think this will get them the outcome they want.