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Why Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer — and Donald Trump — are right

February 27, 2013

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Let’s talk about the brilliant, hard-driving, polarizing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.  Yesterday, news emerged that Mayer wants to backpedal on Yahoo’s flexible work location policies that permit many employees to work, full-time or part-time, from home. According to the internal memo from the Yahoo HR department obtained by technology news & gossip site, All Things D, Yahoo has determined that the business will operate more effectively, efficiently, and creatively if the company goes old school and requires employees to be on site.

Needless to say, the blogosphere went bonkers. Working women sent emails lamenting the return to a dark age when the expectation that all employees work onsite required women to choose between the needs of their children and their families and their requirement to make a living and desire to advance professionally. One Silicon Valley technology worker posted on Facebook that Mayer’s decision was “a desperate move by a desperate company that has trouble trusting their employees.” Academic researchers voiced sadness at Mayer’s blind disregard for evidence that flexible work arrangements benefit companies with higher retention rates and happier, more productive employees. Richard Branson, the Mark Cuban of British bloviators, chimed in, writing that “this seems a backward step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.” And of course, Donald Trump, trapped inside his hall of mirrors of self-parody, probably did Mayer incalculable damage by tweeting “she’s right to expect Yahoo employees to come to the workplace vs. working at home.”

Although the thought makes me gag, I am on board with The Donald. I think Mayer knows exactly what she is doing in making this change. I also agree with her decision. At Knowledge Mosaic, we developed a pretty clear philosophy about work expectations for employees. The philosophy rested on three pillars, all designed to support a culture of deep knowledge, frictionless collaboration, trust, and commitment. The most important of these pillars was the requirement that employees work together in a shared office space, but all three together represented not just a focus on the needs of the company, but true concern for the needs of employees. And I believe Mayer is cognizant, as well, of these business-employee interdependencies, along with the requirement to both balance and integrate these commitments.

Our first pillar at Knowledge Mosaic was the expectation that employees generally limit their work week to 40 hours. Creating a culture where employees routinely clock 60-80 hours a week leads to burnout. Burnout leads to turnover. Turnover is expensive and disruptive, especially for a small company. We estimate that it takes one year to fully integrate new employees into Knowledge Mosaic. The longer they stay, the more seamless their interactions and their contributions and their sense simply of what must be done to make great products.

The second pillar was the commitment to collaboration. I explicitly wanted to create a hybrid organization that required engineers and content experts to work together and to become mutually interdependent upon each other. I had worked at too many other technology-dependent companies where engineers served as gatekeepers and where language and cultural barriers between engineers and non-engineers created a toxic work environment. At Knowledge Mosaic, content editors and engineers have learned to communicate nearly seamlessly and a climate of mutual respect and tolerance has indeed emerged. We have layered feedback loops from our Sales and Support teams on top of these institutionalized product development relationships, to support an environment that absorbs invaluable customer-facing knowledge into the product planning process without dictating outcomes and without sacrificing our internal vision.

The third pillar at Knowledge Mosaic has been the imperative that employees work at our office. I got religion on this very early in the history of the company. It seemed inconceivable that a small, fragile company could build a robust, resilient culture without the commitment to work together in close physical and verbal proximity. Virtual workplaces simply cannot create and support this kind of dense, interactive culture without which meaningful, ongoing collaboration and innovation will not occur. That said, we have always also sponsored flexible work arrangements that allow employees to work part-time to meet their personal needs. They simply have to be at the office when they are working.

So I think that headlines such as “Insiders Say Marissa Mayer Just Made a Major Mistake at Yahoo” and “Memo to Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer: Leaders Admit When They’re Wrong” tell us more about why mainstream news is tanking and why pundits should pay more attention to all the studies indicating that they are wrong far more often they are right. Marissa Mayer is no fool. By reforming workplace practices at Yahoo in this manner, she has demonstrated that she is comfortable making tough, controversial decisions to once again make Yahoo a successful, dynamic, innovative company.

Mayer is a self-acknowledged workaholic. Apparently, the empty Yahoo parking lots in the morning and the swooshing sound of the buildings emptying precisely at 5:00 each evening communicated volumes to her about why Yahoo can barely stay relevant. So I imagine Mayer is not truly emulating the Knowledge Mosaic culture (although she should). She probably would prefer her employees worked 80 hours a week.

Nonetheless, Mayer is trying to do the most important thing she can do to right the ship. She is reinventing the culture at Yahoo. She is asking her employees to rise to the challenge with which she is presenting them – to become great or become irrelevant. For Yahoo, and most great businesses, the alternative to this kind of commitment is shuttered buildings and unemployment. In fact, interviews with many Yahoo employees indicate they strongly support Mayer’s decision. Moreover, there is every indication, that employees will be able to work flexible hours and work from home when needed.

So I commend Marissa Mayer. By virtue of her brains and her beauty, she effortlessly claims the spotlight. She is therefore well-positioned to focus that spotlight on business and workplace controversies that benefit from aggressive, energetic debate and thoughtful dialogue.

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