The polarization around remote work comes as no surprise

The big story of the week was Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate at Yahoo, hands down. That sparked a huge conversation in the tech world, ranging across Yahoo’s troubles, feminism, Silicon Valley, work culture, and the good, bad, and ugly of remote work. Or maybe it’s really about the polarization in thinking about work culture, and Mayer’s action just triggered a huge catharsis in the social discourse about that, and a number of posts here (see Yahoo’s Mayer thinks that remote workers are… too remoteWhat Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate meansNowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and Jennifer Magnolfi on Marrisa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ edict). Let me see if I can can first recap what took place, and then try to characterize the polarization going on.

As I summarized on Monday last, Yahoo’s PR head, Jackie Reses, sent out a company-wide email announcing that, effective in June, there would be no more remote work at Yahoo. Employees will have to start working out of official Yahoo offices, and if necessary, relocate to do so. After this story broke, there was a huge outburst of commentary, to which Yahoo responded with one press release saying,

This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now.

Nonetheless, this event has become the point of leverage in a growing dialogue about what used to be called ‘telecommuting’ and which has been cast negatively by Yahoo as ‘remote work’. Working ‘remotely’ sounds bad: it sounds like a hermit hiding in a cave while all the normal people are working in the office. I personally like the term ‘distributed work’ since it doesn’t focus on the people working outside the office as the basis of the term, but instead looks at the totality of work, with various people working in different places.

But leaving aside the signal that is sent by ‘remote work’, there seem to be a variety of camps with very different views on distributed work:

Business-As-Competition – One community was very supportive of Mayer’s move, which I characterize as the business-as-competition school of thought. This commentariat argue that business goals have to be put ahead of individual needs or likes, and if the leader of a business believes that all-hands-on-deck is necessary to build culture or get product out the door, then that’s the way it must be. These arguments usually involve some combination of these points:

  • Companies like Facebook and Google provide their employees with all sorts of perks — like free meals, gyms, massage therapy, health clubs — to get them to spend long hours at work, and to decrease distractions. Mayer has done the same at Yahoo, but it hasn’t led to the same long hours. After all, she used the employee badge data to help her make the decision about remote work.
  • Everyone knows that great teams work better when they  are in the same physical space. The chances for serendipity go up, innovation is higher, and culture can be kindled better that way. That’s why startups all work in close quarters.
  • It’s a given than people need to work long hours to be competitive today, and so anyone with a job has to commit 110% to helping the company succeed. There is no such thing as a work/life balance anymore, and Yahoo needs to shake loose anybody who lacks the commitment needed to help get the ball into the end zone.
  • Yes, there are tools to help people work remotely, like video conferencing and collaboration tools, but they don’t work as well as proximity, old-fashioned meetings, and face time.

Feminists — A great deal of the controversy around Meyer’s edict has touched on the reality that women are the primary caregivers in out society, and they take on the time burdens involved in caring for children and aging parents to a much greater degree than men. As a consequence, Mayer’s action is seen as a step backward from the contemporary level of support for working women’s needs for flexibility in scheduling and locale for work. This change in policy will impact women more than men, it has been argued. And the fact that Mayer recently had a child and only took two weeks maternity leave off set the stage for criticism about her lack of commitment to women’s work issues.

Balancers — One of the loudest groups in this fight are those that are strongly in favor of allowing workers to figure out for themselves how much time they need to spend in the office, working that out in consultation with their coworkers. From this perspective, Mayer is taking away the autonomy that workers at Yahoo had come to enjoy, to avoid traffic, spend time home with sick children, or work is quieter and perhaps more contemplative surroundings. This perspective is strongly grounded in the thinking of the results-only work environment (ROWE) movement, although not necessarily using that term.

Techies — Another group arguing that Yahoo’s policy doesn’t make sense are the techies: those that believe the use of modern web-based social tools are more than sufficient to keep working teams in synch, and to build strong culture. The trick isn’t to make people work 9-5 in the office (or 9-9), but instead to inculcate social literacy, so that people are proficient in the use of these tools.

There may be some other splinter groups out there as well, but this is a reasonable distillation of the discourse out there in the past week.

This polarization is no surprise to me, nor is Yahoo’s decision to flip this particular switch. The polarization is fundamental.

The Business-As-Competition movement has a near-religious commitment to winning above all else, and a belief that companies are collectives where the individual must march to the drumbeat of the company’s strategic aims, putting that before personal considerations whenever necessary. You’ll hear this from the community of upward-striving entrepreneurs, the traditional ‘organization man’, and Silicon Valley libertarians.

The other groups — those united in their opposition to Yahoo’s new policy — share a common cause, thinking that Mayer is rejecting what they believe is the new normal, a business culture in which greater work flexibility and autonomy should be granted — or demanded — by individuals including — but not necessarily limited to — the choice as to where and when to do your work. At least some of these naysayers view this as a question of civil rights, and they fear that once this right is yanked away that others may follow.

Some have argued that we need to look at this strictly on a factual basis — to look at the research that shows (or does it) that colocated teams are more productive and innovative — but the counter examples of successful, highly distributed work forces are legend. And so, that, and detailed arguments about management ‘styles’, doesn’t really convince any of the uncommitted, because that it isn’t definitive.

In the final analysis, Yahoo says that we shouldn’t look at this as raising broad questions about the world of business, or the tech industry’s cultural foundations. However, it is impossible for us to do that, because this polarization is as deep as any in our society. In the smallest possible context, yes, Yahoo has a problem, and it needed to do something about it. But whether this works to turn Yahoo around or not, the biggest impact won’t be the few hundred or thousands or Yahoo workers whose lives are upended. The biggest impact is that Mayer’s edict has raised the issue to a national level, and shown how deeply divided we are by it.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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