Marissa Meyer, Yahoo!’s CEO, stunned her company’s 11,500 employees when she sent out a memo on Friday that read in part:
Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
Here’s the entire memo. Make sure you read the comments.
The response to the memo so far has been mostly negative. How dare Yahoo! reverse its policy, some cried. Others wondered if Meyer thought this was the 1980s. Some were just downright obnoxious, calling the memo a desperate move by a dying company.
I don’t work at Yahoo! and I couldn’t care less about their internal affairs. I’m also not here to rag on remote workers.
What bugs me is the temerity of the tech community in criticizing a company without knowing anything about the reasons behind its decision to revoke a popular policy. There’s a sense of entitlement that has permeated the tech world over the past 12 years and this exercise in acrimony is a testament to that very sad state of affairs. This is what this post is about.
“Everything is Amazing Right Now and Nobody’s Happy” – Louis C.K.
This unfolding showdown at Yahoo! reminds me of Louis C.K.’s bit on how this generation is spoiled and easily irked by the most inconsequential of things, even though we live in the most amazing time in history. In this particular case, the fact that Yahoos complain about going into work like it’s such a terrible inconvenience illustrates Louis’s point very clearly.
Speaking of entitlement, I interviewed a guy once, fresh out of college, who expected to get paid six figures on day one because, well, he went to Stanford. He didn’t understand the concept of “paying your dues”. I asked him, “do you even want this job?” He replied, “yeah sure, why not.” He was 22 (I think). He didn’t get the job.
But I digress.
“This aggression will not stand, man” – The Dude
Remember when Mr. Lebowski asked the Dude if he was employed?
The same surprise seems to have hit the tech world’s El Duderinos when they heard about the memo. Unlike the Dude’s, their response wasn’t nearly as funny.
Shouldn’t people be happy they’re employed at one of the world’s top companies? Do people actually think it’s easy for companies to reverse a popular policy without having a strong reason for doing so?
Working Remotely Works (for the most part)
I get how the remote-working environment works for some folks and how cost-effective it is for companies. I get it. But Yahoo! is not just any company. It’s an innovative company that’s in revival mode trying to compete in an extremely cutthroat environment.
Working remotely is great when your tasks are clear and ready for execution. It’s great for call centers according to a recent Stanford University experiment:
Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment).
The experiment was conducted (PDF) on call center employees at a Chinese travel company.
So it works. But does it work when the company is in the business of generating new products and innovations? I wonder if Apple has a work-from-home policy for its designers and engineers? Does Facebook? How about Google? I honestly don’t know. I would love to get some data on that.
Face-to-Face Time and Innovation
There’s a reason companies like Facebook, Google and Apple spend millions of dollars on their campuses. From gyms, restaurants, soft-serve machines to daycare and tennis courts. These campuses are built like colleges. They’re meant for people to live and work there. This kind of environment maximizes the face-to-face time people get to spend on the job. Whether the time is planned (i.e. meetings) or organic (i.e. chance hallway encounters, last-minute lunches, impromptu brainstorming sessions, beer after work, …etc)
Great ideas happen when creative minds bounce ideas around by the water cooler or the espresso machine. They happen when the team is close and conversations flow without the awkward energy induced by unfamiliarity.
These conditions do not exist in a remote-working environment. Innovation doesn’t happen remotely. Steven Johnson talks about the Adjacent Possible and Liquid Networks in his book, “Where Great Ideas Come From“. Both concepts require the physical presence of creative people in order to work.
Remote workers might have a great work/life balance and the company that employs them might be saving money in the process. But at what cost? There might be no negative cost incurred if the company is in the business of executing tasks. Law firms, accounting firms, call centers and newspapers might find it a godsend. They cut cost dramatically and their employees are freer. It’s a win-win situation.
But when you want to innovate (I mean, seriously wanting to innovate), you need your talents to be present to feed on each others ideas, passion and enthusiasm. You need that energy around the office. It’s good for teams and their morale and it’s crucial for innovation.
I’m sure Marissa Meyer had a good reason for revoking the beloved perk to which everyone feels entitled. Instead of revolting, this is the time for the El Duderinos to abide. If the captain of the ship decides that she needs all hands on deck in order to save the ship, it’s your duty to comply. Don’t feel like it? Leave.