Elisa Birtwistle writes:

Marissa Mayer’s instruction to Yahoo staff that will no longer be able to work from home has caused something of a media firestorm – even if Yahoo later tried to clarify it. The central question is whether Mayer’s edict runs counter to the idea of the progressive workplace, and the role of flexible working in that. It depends how you look at it.

Critics observe that the notion of ‘presentism’ – that you can only be working if your managers can see you – is certainly a 19th century throwback to the days of Taylorism and time and motion studies. It might be right for an industrial manufacturer but it doesn’t hold for companies who make money from knowledge.  Stronger critics would argue that it also suggests a lack of trust in employees.

What’s been lost in the noise, however, is clarity about the nature of knowledge work (we explored on this several years ago in a set of workplace scenarios for Orange). My suspicion is that Mayer looked around at her competitors – she came from Google – and asked herself ‘What does my biggest competitor have, that I don’t?’. The likely answer: ‘Culture’. The creation of high value complex knowledge – essentially the business that Yahoo is in – does work better through facetime, downtime, and corridor conversations. And the leaked memo says, “communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side”. Personal contact is better for creativity.

But although the modern open office is good for this, it’s not such a good environment for execution, for getting things done that need concentration – one of the reasons why people say they are more productive when working at home. Technology has given us a set of tools to work from home, but not yet ways to collaborate and interact remotely in the same way we can in person.

At the heart of the controversy, though, is the politics of the workplace. In the modern extended workplace, juggling work and personal commitments is hard (forget work/life balance), and made harder by recession. Yahoo is removing one form of flexibility (home working) without offering an alternative (e.g. at work childcare), although she has, at her own cost, set up an on-site crèche for her own child. It’s possible that the memo is a tactic to persuade staff with family commitments to move on, giving way to a potentially younger workforce who will put work first.

One of the problems is perhaps in the messenger, rather than the message. As we argue in our Women 2020 report, one of the biggest issues that discriminates against women’s economic and social equality, in work and elsewhere, is the issue of childcare – and it’s an issue that’s becoming increasingly politicised in the workplace and outside of it. Mayer’s famous for the 130-hour work weeks she used to pull at Google (you have to “shower strategically”, she one told an interviewer). She took two weeks maternity leave after her son was born, which she spent working from home.And Silicon Valley’s never been famous as a model employer.

The most likely outcome of the office edict is that Yahoo employees with dependents – women and men – will look elsewhere, to companies that support their juggling of home and work. That represents quite a heavy business cost – and may well be greater than the benefits of speed Yahoo might gain from people spending more time in the office.

The image at the top of the post is from Digital Strategy Consulting, and is used with thanks.


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