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Marissa Mayer’s Ban on Working at Home

Has Marissa Mayer taken back the office?  Flying in the face of a significant shift of work out of the office and into the home, in 2013 she told her employees at Yahoo that remote working would not be permitted.  Her dictate garnered widespread attention and, in some quarters, derision.  In one version, she was betraying working mothers who wanted the flexibility to be home to take small breaks to attend to family matters.

When she finally spoke publically about the change, she claimed that she was not taking a stand against the growing trend, rather she was saying it was not the best set-up for Yahoo.  One thing is sure, if she wanted to get Yahoo back into the business media conversation, she succeeded.  The company had been considered an irrelevant dinosaur that was sliding toward oblivion when she took over.  Some said she put herself in a no-win situation because the odds were stacked so heavily against her.  The task required nothing less than a turn-around.

If the national media paid attention, Yahoo employees really must have sat up and taken notice.  She signaled that it was no longer business as usual.  She seems to have concluded she did not like the way Yahoo employees conducted themselves.  The sparsely occupied parking lots and lightly-peopled hallways indicated an everyone for themselves approach.  Implicitly, her message was that the company’s culture had to change. 

She presented a fascinating quote, “people are more productive when they're alone, but they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together."  It indicated the thoroughness of the thinking behind the move, which reportedly was months in the making.  To paraphrase her, ‘Yes, you may be more productive when you work at home without the many interruptions of the office, but higher productivity is not my main concern.  I am willing to sacrifice increases in productivity for increases in collaboration and innovation.  Productivity rates are not what is driving this company down, it is the lack of innovation.  You cannot easily collaborate and innovate from your home office, therefore you cannot stay home.’  It was a variation on the old saying that it’s no use doing things right, if you are doing the wrong things.

Corporate cultures are notoriously difficult to change.  To start, an executive first has to get people’s attention.  If that’s the case, Marissa got off to a good start.  Next time, let’s look at where she took it.

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.