The tug-of-war over distributed work continues

The ongoing discussion about distributed work continued for another week, sparked by the news of Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, shutting down remote work later this year and the similar news from Best Buy’s Hubert Joly, who dropped the company’s results-only work environment (ROWE) policy at the company’s headquarters.

I thought I would back up and makes some obvious points, summarize what I’ve written on this, and see if there is anything left unsaid.

Work is inherently distributed. Yahoo has people working in many countries, and in the U.S., it has offices in many different cities and in those cities many different buildings. Yahoo employees are not working in a single gigantic megaplex, and Mayer isn’t advocating that they should.

And Mayer is not mandating that all projects be limited to employees working at the same location, on the same floor, in the same area. No, there is still room for work to be distributed after her plan is implemented.

So Mayer — and the other advocates of this “all hands on deck” school of thought — are not suggesting that distributing work is destructive or impossible. If so, how do automotive supply chains work? I mean, Toyota doesn’t manufacture cars by having one group of people start by rolling out steel and drilling holes in engine blocks and then laboriously assembling all the bits into a car. Various parts of the car are built by different groups — many of them outside Toyota altogether —  and these are finally assembled by Toyota.

Obviously businesspeople like Mayer understand this. This is industrial bedrock, after all. So they would agree that work — even knowledge work — can be distributed in a similar way. After all, Yahoo has partnerships with outer companies and use APIs to integrate software. Everything doesn’t need to be a monolithic whole managed by Yahoo.

But the company thinks there is something different about work being done by Yahoo employees. And it has changed its policy for specific reasons: to change the culture of the company, apparently, to make the company more competitive.

It is an interesting fact that making a company more competitive in the marketplace does not mean that the company has to be more competitive internally. Let me clarify: An internal corporate culture that rewards aggressive behaviors — where, for example, one “wins” an “argument” over a product direction against an “opposing” point of view or where people “fight” to get promoted “over” others — does not necessarily lead to a company that succeeds economically. If so, every company would quickly turn into a Romulan warrior culture internally. No, it appears that competitiveness externally is correlated with some combination of other factors, like the levels of innovation and the capacity to execute business strategy. So Mayer isn’t bringing everyone back to the office so they can spend more time involved in office politics, is she? (Note: I have a post in the works about competition in the workplace.)

What new activities are supposed to happen when everyone is back in the office, then? Obviously, the distributed work that goes on in projects that are spread across geographic distance will remain pretty much the same, except that some people will now be working at the same location.

One kind of behavior that will increase is the incidence of communication with co-workers and with other employees who are not working together on projects. A worker who formerly worked at home one or two days per week might now have more interactions with others. Note however, that a harried mother of two who now has to commute five days a week to the office might be more likely to run out the door at 5 p.m. and to eat at her desk in this scenario. So that may be the cover story, but I don’t think that will turn out to be the actual driver. And many have argued — me included — that chance ideas and innovation can occur with geographically distributed people, as long as they invest time in one another and use good social tools. (Note that Yahoo is kind of out of the game on the social side: Remember Yahoo 360°?)

So what is changed by this policy? People will have to come to the office during (pretty much) regular office hours instead of spending some or all of the hours out of the office. What specific behavior changes? Well, you have to look at a different group for the answer. Those formerly remote workers are no longer remote from the watchful gaze of their managers. And that is where this all comes down: The managers can now interact more easily — and in a face-to-face manner — with their charges.

The most obvious aspect of this is watching: Managers will feel like they know what their direct reports are doing since they are in the office, instead of working — or goofing off — at home. So, that element is that goldbricking can be countered. But, as the ROWE adherents argue, can’t you judge productivity by output? If a programmer doesn’t fix her bugs, isn’t that obvious without looking over her shoulder? Well, obviously. So it must be something else. If the purpose is to find and fire the incompetent, it’s not necessary.

Perhaps it is more in the role of the manager as mentor and teacher. Yahoo’s managers could teach new skills and develop new ways of thinking in their charges that would — over time– lead to a more productive company, and a more competitive one. And, of course, in this interaction, Yahoo’s cultural matrix could be made stronger as the formerly remote workers absorb the explicit and implicit halves of Yahoo culture. Maybe first-line managers have been complaining that they can’t do their jobs with people coming and going all the time. What specifically can’t they do with remote workers?

But is Yahoo’s culture a healthy one? The company actually seems like a dysfunctional mess. Doesn’t pulling people into that lead to worse problems? OK, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that this is the actual motivation. To inculcate some set of shared principles, a shared vision, and a belief in a collective opportunity for the company and its employees, who are shareholders too, to some extent.

So at the best — and it’s a weak argument to me — Mayer is hoping to indoctrinate the crew to buy into a mission and to align themselves with it. And she intends to get rid of people who don’t. Not because they can’t be managed remotely, and not because they can’t debug code or write marketing copy. But because they are not willing or able to subordinate themselves the company’s strategic plan and style of operations. And, of course, that includes accepting the moral argument that underlies her “no remote work” edict. Anyone who doesn’t come around to believing that such a policy makes obvious sense simply should not be working at Yahoo. It’s a self-fulfilling tactic, and I bet it is working.

I wonder how many Yahoo employees are now out looking for work elsewhere, including first-line managers who didn’t sign up to be a member of the brain police.

As I said several weeks ago, the most interesting aspect of the Yahoo “no remote work” brouhaha is how polarizing it is. Many feel quite strongly that Mayer is justified and that the outcome — a shared collective long-term strategy and strong alignment of the individuals to that — justifies the abandonment of personal benefits involved in a more flexible schedule and working at home. An equally large group seems to feel that Mayer is overreaching and trying to turn the clock back to an earlier and discredited view of business organization and the relationships among the individual worker, management, and the company.

In a recent series of posts (“The slow-and-tight mindset is dead: welcome to the postnormal,” “Social is the new production line, not the new watercooler,” and “Why work doesn’t happen at work“) I have made a distinction between what I call fast-and-loose companies (those that are organized around cooperation and networked social connection) and slow-and-tight companies (based on collaboration and role-based business processes). My sense is Mayer is confronting a dilemma — a company that was neither one nor the other of these alternatives — but she is responding by trying to push toward a collective, with more tightly defined roles and a single shared vision of how Yahoo will operate and compete. This can lead to success, as a collective like that would tend to define it, but it won’t lead to increased autonomy, well-being, and happiness of the people who work there. And for some of us, at least, that fails to create our definition of success. Just as important, as I plan to discuss in another post this week, creating a monoculture with a nondiverse set of behaviors and world views is exactly the wrong thing for today’s economy.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

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