Essay

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer says no more working from home – and I say, “Right on!”

Yahoo!'s Marissa Meyer. TechCrunch photo.

Marissa Mayer. TechCrunch photo.

They say that the first secret of success is simply showing up. For those of us who work in software development, I say that means going to the office every workday.

Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo!, seems to agree. She recently told the Internet company’s employees that they would no longer be allowed to work from home. She thinks that employees need to work in a Yahoo! office to create the highly collaborative culture Yahoo! needs to be successful. The decision has polarized the press, some of which vilify her for what they call a family-unfriendly move, and some of which praise her for a bold move aimed at righting a long-troubled ship.

Sure, the technology exists to develop software almost anywhere. But making software of any size and scale is not a solitary pursuit. Lots of people have to work together closely to make it happen. And my experience after more than two decades making software is that the best working together happens face to face.

The second best working together happens when almost everybody works remotely. The company that makes WordPress, the platform I use for this blog, famously embraces a “distributed workforce” with more than 80 percent of its employees working somewhere other than in the company’s offices. I wish that any software product I’ve worked on in my entire career worked as well and was as enjoyable to use as WordPress! If the goodness of WordPress is any measure, a distributed workforce really can work. But I think what makes it work is that because almost everybody works somewhere other than the office, they have to embrace the technologies that make it work.

That’s hard to do because most of those technologies are terrible. Chat and instant-messenger software seems to work pretty well and are the notable exception. Voice and video conferences are a pain to set up, and it’s fairly routine that calls drop or the quality of transmission fades; “Can you hear me now?” is a common statement on conference calls. Information-sharing tools such as file shares, wikis, and the like need people whose job it is to manage them or it soon becomes impossible to find things in them.

If everyone depends on these tools, there is enough impetus to tune them to work as well as they can, and to make working through them the norm despite their shortcomings. But when only a small portion of a software team works outside the office, that impetus simply isn’t there.

But more importantly, it is simply easiest to reach people who are in the same place as us. When most people work in the office, the people who work remotely can easily be left out of key conversations and become marginalized.

In one of my past jobs, one of my employees had an unexpected life change that forced her to move far enough away that commuting to work every day was impossible. Because she had been a longtime successful employee, I allowed her to work from home. She drove in every other Monday to maintain her office relationships, but the office momentum ran on face-to-face interaction and when important conversations spontaneously happened she was usually not there to participate in them. For a long time she tried hard to stay plugged in, but her enthusiasm finally waned and she started to ask for projects she could work entirely alone. I had some, but most of them were not as important to the business as what everybody else was working on. There’s no way to get around it – it stalled her career. She seemed to understand and accept this, but it was a bit of a shame nonetheless.

This is why I say that having everybody work in the office together is really best. It avoids the awful collaboration technologies, lets us play to our natural human strengths around face-to-face interaction, and keeps everybody fully engaged and involved.

I’m not opposed to someone working from home on occasion. When someone is doing a task that requires protracted concentration, sometimes home offers fewer distractions than a bustling office. And sometimes you have to meet a repairman at home, or one of the kids turns up sick. You can often get some work done while you’re dealing with these things. Heck, a couple years ago I worked from home for three days after a bad ice storm made driving treacherous.

But now I say no when someone who works for me asks to work from home after 3 pm each day so they don’t have to pay for after-school child care, or every Monday to take a turn staying home with an elderly mother, or Tuesdays and Thursdays because they live far away and would like to cut back on the commute. Although I’m sympathetic to their needs, I can’t meet them and keep up the tight collaboration my company needs to be successful.

Actually, I care a great deal about work-life balance. I work very hard to plan projects carefully so that people who work for me seldom have to work extra hours to keep up. I very much value going home at 5 pm myself so that I can have plenty of time with my family and to relax.

In the end, people who need to work from home need to find a line of work where it makes sense. In 1994 I took an 18-month career detour to edit technology books. I really could do that job from anywhere, and except for an occasional phone call with my authors or my boss I could work alone for hours and hours and be incredibly productive.

But that doesn’t work in most software-development shops. And apparently, it doesn’t work in Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo!, either.

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12 thoughts on “Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer says no more working from home – and I say, “Right on!”

  1. A well scripted and balanced blog showing a full and detailed understanding of exactly what the issues are. I must say that I was surprised when I read in the press last week that a couple of CEOs from major companies were against working from home. I guess we had become indoctrinated into believing that it was “right” for everyone. I thought I was the only opposed to it. Apparently not there are three or four of us out here now!

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  2. My husband works in the petro chemical industry in designing. This is a field where working from home would be more beneficial. It’s quieter, less distractions from loud talking employees and the food is better. Even though there is “collaboration” between disciplines, it’s not the same as IT field. CAD drawings can be discussed via phone calls, revisions made and then just “emailed”. Maybe an occasional “in office” meeting but most can be done at home. But my husband’s company won’t allow it. I’m sure they have their reasons. I guess my husband should be happy that they have every other Friday off.

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    • Even software developers, testers, and technical writers will rightly claim that working from home has serious, obvious benefits. All of these tasks require periods of quiet and concentration. Yesterday a bunch of us were hashing out a problem here in cubeville and it got a little loud. Pretty much nobody was able to work while we discussed it. So the other side of working in the office is figuring out how collaboration can happen without putting a boot in others’ productivity while they are trying to concentrate!

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  3. Nicely presented argument for a stay-in-office workforce. I’ve been hearing this viewpoint more and more, even from family-focused Moms who believe that a collaborative environment is key to a successful business.

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    • Thanks Malerie. I think an argument can be made that it’s very, very hard to “have it all” — be a full-time mom and a full-time employee. Something usually has to give!

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  4. Steve says:

    You make excellent points. Like you, I also work in IT, but I feel more disciplined working in an office as opposed to working from home. As for technology, I think that the downside is that we as a society have placed less and less importance on physical face-to-face human contact. As someone once said, “No man (person) is an island.” Love your blogs. Keep up the good work and God bless you and yours.

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    • I can get huge amounts of work done at home. Where I am now, in addition to my management duties, I also write our product release notes. I could do that from home a lot faster because there are fewer interruptions. But the minute I need to ask a question, suddenly being at home slows things down a whole lot — everybody else is back in the office.

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  5. Lone Primate says:

    My take on it is sort of the opposite. I live close to my designated office so I come in pretty much every day. It separates my working life from my home life. I’m just wired that way. But I can see this really isn’t the way people in service industry jobs that aren’t public-facing will be working for very much longer.

    There’s really no need for me to be here. There is not one single person at this location I interact with in order to do what I do. My collaborators are in Ottawa, Vancouver, central New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, the Philippines, and Singapore. We’re on the phone all the time; our intranet is our principal means of moment-by-moment interaction. Half, maybe more, of the people I work with are working from home, most of the time. Sometimes I can hear their kids in the background during meetings… these are working people whose kids are going to grow up knowing who mom and/or dad were during “those years”, which was something people my age didn’t get (unless Mom didn’t work, and mine did). They call in sick less often because, even if they feel bad, “the office” is home, and they’re not spreading the flu to everyone they work with. Unlike me, they’re not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions by driving one person per car, or two, even by taking the bus.

    I like the office environment. I like the people I work with, or at least used to in other locations. But I can see the writing on the wall. It’s increasingly common that the people we work with aren’t in the same city, or even the same country. Talent is where you find it, and the need to stick it all in the same postal code disappeared in the 1990s. What’s needed now is the means to motivate people to all pull together on a rope that’s virtual. We need strategies to generate workplace intimacy across continents, and the tools to facilitate it. The company I’m working for is at the forefront of this; given its size, it has to be. I think 50 years from now, if not considerably sooner, someone in Stockholm surfing job opportunities and seeing a situation she likes in Shanghai and hooking up virtually for a few years will be the norm. Barring some kind of global disaster, I think this trend is irreversible. Yahoo!, of all companies, ought to grasp and embrace the very future it facilitates every day. They should embrace the 1990s, not pine for 1890s.

    Anyway, that’s my 2¢. :)

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    • You will note that I said that a truly distributed workforce, like the one you’re part of, does work. The technologies that enable that collaboration aren’t perfect, and they sometimes suck, but they can be made to work. I think it’s less good than being face to face, but way, way, way better than having most of a team in the office and a minority working from home.

      I do take issue with the idea that people who work from home are “there” for their children. They are certainly physically present. But the kinds of jobs I have always worked in this industry would simply not allow me to drop everything for a kid every time my kids needed something. It would not be even a thin substitute for the stay-at-home mom I had, who really did make her children her focus.

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  6. DennyG says:

    It took multiple reads of the “But now when someone…” paragraph for me to understand that it’s regularly scheduled absences you’re disallowing and not occasional/emergency ones. So yes, it is brilliant.

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    • Exactly. I actually encouraged one of my testers the other day to work from home to push through a mountain of work on a day when she was being constantly interrupted. But if she came to me and asked to work from home every Friday, I’d say no.

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