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Ordered back to the mother ship – Why Marissa Mayer’s work-at-home policy signals future challenges

By adamk on March 4, 2013

By Adam Krob

This week, I read Yahoo! announcement that work-at-home privileges were being revoked for its team members.  As a long-time work-at-home advocate (nearly 5 years of working from the study overlooking my garden), I was surprised.  I watched as the pundits weighed in about the policy, both for and against.  I came to the conclusion that this decision signals big challenges for Yahoo! in the not too distant future.  There are two reasons for my concern – first that the decision highlights the importance of the Yahoo! mother ship, and second that the decision shows a dangerous leaning toward activity-based metrics.

My first concern is Yahoo!’s express elevation of the work that goes on in Sunnyvale over work done elsewhere.  Whether intentional or not, Mayer’s decision to end work-at-home sends a message that the only important work is the work being done at headquarters.  At The Verghis Group, we call this the mother ship syndrome.

The long-term effects are two-fold.  The first is that the mother ship syndrome is demotivating to anyone who works outside the corporate headquarters.  If you work in Asia, Latin America, or Europe, you will begin to think that your contributions are less valued by the organization.  If you have to wait until 9am pacific time to green light a small project or make a personnel decision, your perceptions will be confirmed.  Top talent will stay just long enough to find another organization that values their contributions.  The second effect of the mother ship syndrome is the loss of key perspectives.  I have been working with a team of people for about a year.  This team is made up of people on four different continents and five different cities. If our team had restricted membership to people at any one of the locations, we would have lost key people with varied and important perspectives.  Our differences have made our team successful.  You don’t get as much difference in one location, not matter how appealing you make it.

My second concern with Mayer’s decision is the (reported) reason that she made it.  According to several reports, the key metric that led to ending work-at-home for Yahoo! team members was time on the virtual private network (VPN, a technology that allows computers outside a corporate firewall to work as if they were inside it, while keeping the data passed between computers private).  I find the time on the VPN metric troubling because it is prioritizing an activity over an outcome (perhaps customer adoption of a new Yahoo! service).  Looking at trends in activities like time on the VPN is fine, as long as it doesn’t become a key decision factor (as it appears to have in this case).  If the activity becomes more important than the outcome, the organization is headed for trouble.  If your team knows that time on the VPN is the most important goal, then developers are smart enough to game the system.  I am sure someone already has an automated process that generates VPN activity to simulate real work.  More problematic, though, is that the team loses touch with what is really important—the outcomes like profitability, customer satisfaction or team satisfaction.  Focusing on activities kills organizational alignment.

Yahoo!’s work-at-home policy change isn’t a small step, it is a big one.  Mayer and her team need to weigh the drawbacks with their positive intentions.

Comments

  1. Nice piece, Adam. The points you raise resonate with my experience.
    While measuring activities is important, setting goals on them is a bad practice and set the stage as you point out to useless gaming.
    Ultimately, you paint a portrait of a company which appears to be heading back to command and control and I’m not sure I would want to work again in that type of scenario. I like your mention of outcomes and my experience tells me that managing to outcomes requires real leadership, solid management and a lot of discipline within the organization.
    B

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