The last CEO named Mayer to anger employees about working conditions as much as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has angered hers was probably Louis B. Mayer of MGM. He once interrupted a meeting between studio head Irving Thalberg and the Marx Brothers (see picture). Mayer kept Thalberg so long that by the time Thalberg returned to his office, the comedians had stripped off all their clothes and started roasting potatoes in his fireplace.
For those who have missed the raging firestorm over Silicon Valley, here’s a recap. Marissa Mayer decided that the way to reinvigorate her yawing company was to … wait for it … rescind telecommuting privileges. No more working at home – collaboration, in Mayer’s eyes, is only possible face-to-face.
Could the irony scream any louder? Here’s an Internet company, sitting on top of an opportunity to make connectivity and productivity easier through the hands-on experience of its employees, and its CEO is saying they have to be in the office. I fully expect the Onion to publish a story in the next few days proclaiming that Mayer has dictated that employees can’t leave the building at all, even to go home. The article will say that she has replaced contracts with jail terms, cubicles with cells, and receptionists with prison guards.
A lot of people are making this a gender issue (because Mayer is a woman) or a parenting issue (because she just had a baby and paid to have a nursery built next to her office). Speaking as someone who is neither a woman nor a parent, but rather a Silicon Valley worker (who just wrote on the topic of telecommuting), I can rationally say that it is nothing more than a productivity issue. As in, Mayer has just managed to kill any potential for it. If you own Yahoo stock, sell it now. Here are five reasons why.
Traffic. To get to Yahoo headquarters requires navigating two of the most congested freeways in the Bay Area. Yahoo offers bus service from San Francisco, but its busses don’t travel any faster in heavy traffic, because sometimes even the carpool lanes back up. Nor is public transportation Silicon Valley’s strong suit: the local light rail system serves Yahoo headquarters, but it moves so slowly it is sometimes no faster than driving. The time employees don’t spend in traffic they can spend working.
Travel. Is Mayer also rescinding corporate travel? If not, does she no longer expect employees to actually work when they’re traveling? Or stay in touch with their teams? I know executives who travel more than they’re actually in their office. How are they supposed to collaborate?
Talk, informal. The kind of serendipitous insight that comes from informal chatting is highly over-rated. I once worked with a group of twenty-somethings who bragged that they consistently worked sixteen-hour days. No doubt they were in the office for that length of time, but they spent a healthy chunk of that time chatting. If they’d actually focused on work, they could have been out the door at four.
Talk, formal. I’ve also been in cubicle farms where the distraction from one conversation between two people can eradicate the productivity of six surrounding co-workers. Even people in offices have to contend with people “dropping by.” The only living things that interrupt me are my cats, and I still get more done in the first four hours of my day at home than I would over eight hours in an office.
Technology. The idea of technology company CEO who doesn’t understand how technology has advanced collaboration – through instant messaging, instant conferencing, video chat – without requiring anybody to be in the same building is scarifying. More important, technology allows this collaboration to happen anywhere around the globe. If Yahoo hires more employees (assuming anyone will want to work there after this), they’re not going to be in the same building. Imagine what Yahoo employees could learn about making online collaboration better by actually spending the day doing it.
Sometimes collaboration between immediate co-workers isn’t the problem. Sometimes it’s collaboration among many departments. So then what? Is everybody going to be crammed into the same building? Mark my words, this is going to go down in history as one of the stupidest CEO decisions ever, along with Qwikster, New Coke, the Edsel, and keeping the Marx Brothers waiting.