Successful telecommuting needs proper management

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Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! for just seven months, was hired to shake things up and turn the Internet communications company around. She has certainly shaken things up, but whether it improves the company’s bottom line remains to be seen.

Last week she issued a memo announcing the end of telecommuting and provided specious justification for upending the lives of many employees while granting herself the privilege of a nursery in her office suite for her newborn son and his nanny.

That she personally paid to convert the office into a nursery doesn’t matter. Flaunting the privileges that comes with money and power is never a good idea. Mayer amplified her privilege by making her life better and her employees’ lives more difficult.

Right now her employees — telecommuters and office dwellers alike — aren’t focused on the product or the customers. They are mad.

The telecommuters are a mix of the productive and creative, the steady and responsible, and the abusive and lazy. Ending the telecommute option for one and all seems like overkill.

Mayer’s memo to all employees states that they need to be working side-by-side in an office setting to communicate and collaborate: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallways and cafeteria discussions; meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

With just a few keystrokes in the Yahoo! Search bar, Mayer could read numerous studies on work quality and productivity of telecommuters and the hundreds of articles detailing how companies manage to be creative, responsive and successful with most employees working remotely. It boils down to a matter of management style and preference.

There are successful, innovative companies that allow little if any telecommuting (Apple and Google) and there are many others (Intel, Cisco) who allow the majority of employees to telecommute some or most of the time, depending on the demands of the position.

I don’t think Yahoo! has a telecommuter problem in and of itself. Five CEOs in five years would be a more obvious cause. A stale business strategy and tepid employee supervision could be a problem.

Mayer defends her decision about telecommuting by asserting that collaboration via casual proximity generates the best decisions and insights. But proximity doesn’t improve decision quality. There is a mile-long list of failed companies that had no telecommuters.

The reality is that the decision makers, even in the world of high tech, don’t spend much time mingling in the cafeteria and hallways.

Don’t blame telecommuters for poor supervisory skills. That’s what this comes down to; telecommuting or remote employees will not make or break Yahoo!

What matters is the CEO’s ability to tap into the creativity and abilities of employees regardless of where they are located.

Innovative ideas pop into our minds at the oddest times and those ideas can be refined and improved in the hallways of Yahoo! or over a phone connection.

Supervising telecommuters takes some planning, regular communication and monitoring work results — but that’s the essence of supervision in any company, with or without telecommuting employees. It isn’t altered by distance or device.

There are jobs and employees who need to be in the office. Shared files and resources or security issues will tie an employee to a location.

Telecommuting is not appropriate for new employees or an employee who needs guidance and close supervision.

The practical realities of doing the right thing for the business should guide decisions about which positions can telecommute. How much time is needed in the office will vary based on the nature of the job.

When I worked for Mercer, a human resources consulting company, my office was in San Francisco but my colleagues were spread around the West Coast. I had no choice but to sharpen my supervisory skills; I learned how to delegate, monitor details and stay in touch by phone and email.

Some teams talked daily and met in person weekly, others met only when there was a good reason. When together physically we worked, socialized and goofed off a bit, and we enjoyed each other. Ideas came when we were working alone and when we were together; it couldn’t be scheduled or facilitated. Forced collaboration doesn’t spawn creativity.

I hope Yahoo! employees have received more detailed information than provided in Mayer’s communique. Big policy changes need more than a casual memo. Maybe this is just a temporary change. But permanent or temporary, it is disruptive to many people’s lives.

Her supervisors and managers will be inundated with questions from angry employees. Let’s hope she did a little planning and provided answers to her management team.

If she has ticked off the employees and not provided the supervisors with some answers about her plans for the company, she may need to bunker down in the nursery for a few weeks.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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