Marissa Mayer's future: A Yahoo telecommuter mutiny

The latest tech controversy sweeping across blogs seems to be the idiotic pronouncement by the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, that nobody will ever, ever, ever be allowed to work from home, and that's that.

As someone who has telecommuted for decades and manages to get a lot accomplished from my home office, as well as a hotel room when necessary, I have some serious thoughts about this. I actually used to give a canned speech about the advantages and disadvantages regarding telecommuting for the modern distributed corporation.

Let's start with one simple fact; research shows that remote workers are much more productive than distracted office workers who have to deal with other distracted office workers. This is well-documented and is especially true in positions that require concentration, such as coding, video editing, or writing. But if you want or need to socialise all day, then the office is the best way to do that.

Generally speaking, the people who do not "get" telecommuting are insecure control freaks worried sick that someone is taking advantage of them. Mayer does not seem insecure.

The worst part about this attitude is that Yahoo will lose a lot of very talented work-at-home folks who must work at home because they have a child to take care of, or they live in a far-flung state like New Hampshire and simply cannot come into the office in California. This group will end up quitting — certain talent out there can work wherever they want. Mayer has no idea if Yahoo has any people of this calibre. I assume there are many.

That said, she is the CEO — the "boss" — and can do whatever she wants. People who roll into a company and make such edicts about working at home might be doing this because it is also fairly well known by researchers that team-building and brainstorming are best done in person. But why make the ruling company-wide? Is every single one of the thousands of employees of Yahoo expected to be team building all day, every day? If Yahoo was a small startup, I'd take her side on the issue. But it isn't.

If Mayer were truly a modern manager in Silicon Valley, she'd shutter all the Yahoo offices and virtualise the whole company. Move everyone out. Have massive and occasional large meet-ups to handle the team-building and brainstorming. With networking, video conferencing, and modern telecommunications there is no reason for office buildings anymore. She's going in the opposite direction, as if Yahoo was some sort of assembly line car manufacturer.

A virtualised company would also allow Yahoo to get the best employees worldwide, people who would otherwise not be available. Working, commuting, and living in Silicon Valley is extremely expensive and inconvenient. Mayer, a billionaire with multiple residences, has no apparent empathy for the plight of the average Valley worker and it shows with this edict.

A number of pundits have asserted that a slew of home workers at Yahoo don't really do anything, and many are collecting a pay cheque while flying under the radar. This may be true, in fact I would be surprised if it wasn't true — because of the way the company has been managed. I can assure you that as many or more people working in the office are pulling the same stunt. It's not about working from home, it's about managing the people who work from home. If any group should be punished, it's the layers in the middle who are supposed to keep employees busy.

If Marissa Mayer thinks she is going to solve the problem of slackers by forcing everyone to work in the confines of the Yahoo compound, she is making a mistake. Whatever she thinks or imagines is going on will just get worse in the confusion, or it will get worse within the confines of her imagination. So far, what we may be witnessing is a Captain Queeg moment and the Yahoo saga will now turn into a replay of The Caine Mutiny, with Mayer evolving into the Humphrey Bogart character concerned about the number of strawberries in the ice cream.

For those of you who have never seen The Caine Mutiny movie or read the book (both are great), let me tell you that it does not turn out great for the Captain. Enough said.