Why We Should Thank Marissa Mayer and Yahoo

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By Edward M. Yang

By now most of us have heard of the brouhaha that Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! started awhile back when she instituted a ban on the practice of telecommuting.

At the time, her decision touched off a dust storm of debate about the benefits and pitfalls of working remotely.

Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram penned an article on “Why Marissa Mayer’s Ban on Remote Working at Yahoo Could Backfire Badly“:

“The danger for Yahoo here is that a decision driven by what are theoretically positive motives…could wind up sending exactly the wrong message: namely, that it is a bureaucratic and centrally-controlled organization with no interest in being flexible when it comes to the living arrangements of its employees.”

Meanwhile, Nicholas Carlson’s excellent piece on “Ex-Yahoos Confess: Marissa Mayer is Right to Ban Working from Home” included support form Yahoo staff who claimed that abuse of telecommuting was widespread:

“This source said Yahoo’s large remote workforce led to “people slacking off like crazy, not being available, spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo! projects.”

“It was a great way to get Y! to pay you while you put in minimal work and do your side start-up.”

Back and forth it went.

What a lot of the debate missed was the main crux of the argument.

Telecommuting and other forms of remote working itself aren’t “bad” or “good”, just like tools such as money and guns aren’t.

Any tool is only as good as its user.

There are productive remote workers and unproductive remote workers.

The problem at Yahoo was that they had no way of figuring out exactly where their telecommuters fell on that spectrum.

Thus they ended up relying on a crude method of looking at access to the VPN as sort of a proxy to figure out who was working and who wasn’t.

And as Tony Bradley from PC World said in “Why VPN Logs Don’t Measure Worker Performance“:

“The bottom line is that great employees are great employees, and slackers are slackers whether they work at home or sit in a cubicle for 40 hours a week. Making a slacker show up at the office doesn’t magically make that person more productive.”

I’ve met telecommuters who logged onto their IM chat program and crawled back to bed.

And I’ve met telecommuters who were VPs at companies such as HP and Microsoft, working from cities far from Redmond WA and Palo Alto CA.

Here are some tips on how to make the whole Yahoo debacle moot in your company:

1. Hire the right people. Just as Bradley said, great employees are great employees. Use the probationary period of the first three months to figure out if they are a good fit, and don’t be afraid to part ways if they aren’t.

2. Empower them. Push them. Challenge them. But also give them the tools they need to succeed. Give them a vision of how they can grow with you and share in your common mission.

3. Set goals. Conduct frequent reviews and try to set quantifiable goals, ones that are achievable and ones that are stretch goals.

4. Use the right tools. Forget “spyware” that snaps screenshots of workers or website blocking software that bans access to Facebook. A determined slacker will find their way to the promised land, usually via their smartphone. Instead, check out tools that measure productivity like MySammy rather than “Big Brother” tools.

5. Reward them. I could be a quick note praising them. It could be taking them to lunch. And yes, it could be bonuses and other perks. Companies like AnyPerk are making employee benefits easier to implement than ever.

So let’s thank Mayer for igniting a crucial debate about how we really measure and value our employees.

Because as the economy continues to move towards information workers, the traditional paradigm of being in a cubicle from 9-to-5 will be gone, as will be the need for things like this:

Sleeping on the job

Awake or asleep?

And good riddance, in my opinion!

P.S. Still think goofing off on the job isn’t a big problem? Feast your eyes on this sobering infographic.

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