1950s officeI’m so throughly disappointed and disheartened reading the news about Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer’s new policy forcing all employees to be present in the office.  If you haven’t already seen the story, Mayer, in the spirit of collaboration and, in order to increase effectiveness, has mandated that all employees who currently work in a remote capacity return to the office.

Huh?  It’s 2013.  I thought we had long since moved past the discussion about the need to be present in the office (for most employees) and were actually looking at strategies to create more flexibility for a multitude of reasons including cost-effectiveness for the corporation, improved productivity for the employee and, most importantly, increased retention.  Win-win all the way around.  At a time when more and more companies are looking at innovative ways to distribute the workforce and create better opportunities for attracting top talent, achieving strong results and creating a culture that recognizes and respects the need for some type of work/life integration, it is seemingly absurd that Yahoo’s new CEO is taking a 180 degree turn and returning to an archaic workplace style.

Every bit of research that has surfaced in the last several years has indicated that more flexibility is not just a perk but, in fact, a requirement in order to take your business to the next level.  Millennials and boomers – the largest populations currently in the workforce – are demanding it.  Boomers are not willingly fading off into the sunset like many of their predecessors did.  Longer life expectancy and weak retirement accounts have contributed to the need and opportunity to have this enormous wealth of talent and knowledge hang around a little bit longer.  The ability to transfer knowledge to the incoming workforce – who also have their own ideas about how work should happen – is invaluable.  Rather than gold watches and retirement parties, organizations have the good fortune of creating new work solutions for these vital contributors to allow them to begin to reclaim their lives a little bit and still play an important role in helping push business forward.  Millennials have made their voices heard.  Many choose flexibility over cash and most will tell you that they will stick around longer if they have the ability to abandon the 9 to 5 construct.  They want the opportunity to work whenever, wherever, however – as long as they are producing results.  And companies are jumping all over this as they are finally figuring out that results-driven management is the true path to success.  No one has been able to prove that being present increases productivity, innovation or results.  However, happy and fulfilled employees always proves to yield better results.

Mayer joined Yahoo last summer while five months pregnant.  Any other Generation Xers like me will tell you that the notion of a woman being selected to run an Internet giant four months before giving birth to her first child is outlandish.  It is noteworthy enough that a 37-year-old woman would be tapped for such a role but, the fact that she was also about to become a mother, made the decision and appointment groundbreaking.  And, for those of us who rally every day to create a world where women can have such opportunities, the announcement from Yahoo allowed us to give a collective cheer and imagine, if only briefly, about the seismic shift that might have just occurred.  But then Mayer chose to take a 2-week maternity leave.  OK, she is a new CEO and probably could pull off getting back to work with the help of caregivers and a good flexible schedule.  She was about to become our flexibility icon!  And then, only months after returning to work, Mayer, with a straight face and clearly a lot of conviction, announced that flexibility was no longer on the table at Yahoo.

If Mayer were the newly appointed CEO of a large financial services firm or even an old, stodgy law firm, I could almost appreciate the culture that she was working in and acknowledge the pressure she might be under.  However, Mayer is at the helm of an innovative, young technology firm, headquartered in a town where flexibility is ingrained in the culture.  Granted, Silicon Valley is riddled with campuses that try to lure employees into never leaving the office with endless arrays of concierge services and free gourmet food.  However, these companies also outfit their employees with the latest technology to enable them to be truly mobile, ensuring that nothing will stand in the way of productivity.  In this environment, the notion of insisting that, in order to “become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side”, is absurd.

There is no argument that there is tremendous value in human interaction rather than ongoing virtual connections.  When teams come together and work alongside one another, they produce great results.  However, we must balance this with the importance of individual work time, broad-ranging work styles (not everyone is an extrovert) and the need to be able to juggle all the various aspects of your life.  The availability of technology today allows for work to happen in ways that would have never been possible even 20 years ago and affords us the benefit of being more innovative in our thinking about how work happens.  If Mayer was really looking to create more innovation within her workplace then the decision should have been to empower managers to develop strategies within their teams to create dynamic work environments that accommodated the various needs and styles of the team members.  If Yahoo employees were taking advantage of flexibility and not being productive, this should have been addressed on an individual basis.  A wholesale move away from flexibility and remote work is not the answer here.

For the past decade, a big part of my work has been focused on helping companies make the shift to more agile work where employees and managers can learn how to better communicate, be more effective and shift the workplace dynamics.  I am sure Marissa Mayer believes that her new approach is the right strategy for Yahoo’s 14,000 employees located all over the globe but, given the inertia resulting from the shift towards more flexible workplaces, it is a giant step backwards.  A step that will, undoubtedly, be watched closely and, probably be used as the case study for why flexibility and workplace agility is so critical in the new era of work.  The war for talent is alive and well – especially in the high-tech sector – and employees at Yahoo will show their displeasure with this controversial move by talking with their feet.  Undoubtedly, productivity will fall and attrition rates will rise.  If the days of workplace flexibility are ancient history for Yahoo then the days of replying to emails on nights and weekends and being “on” all the time – a tradeoff for that freedom – is sure to become a thing of the past as well.

It’s an unfortunate moment in time for the movement towards more agile and dynamic workplaces but, without a doubt, it is a moment that will leave an indelible mark on the future of work.


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