Source: The Economist
Forcing workers to come into the office is a symptom of Yahoo’s problems, not a solution to them
IN JONATHAN SWIFT’S 1726 novel, “Gulliver’s Travels”, the Yahoos are a degraded band of humanoids kept tethered in stalls by their equine captors. It is therefore appropriate that a recent, widely leaked memo from Yahoo’s human-resources manager, Jackie Reses, began with the toe-curling salutation with which managers at the company normally address underlings: “Yahoos”.
“We can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices,” the memo went on. Presumably, though, while some Yahoos are feeling it, others are lounging around at home in their pyjamas, for the memo went on to say that from June all Yahoos will be required to turn up in the office unless they have a good excuse. “The best is yet to come,” the memo ended—a claim which may sound implausible to the employees of a company whose market capitalisation has fallen from $125 billion in 2000 to $25 billion now.
It is understandable that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s recently appointed chief executive, should want to extract some more value from the humanoids she leads. Google’s workers each generate $931,657 revenue, 160% more than the $353,657 produced by each of Yahoo’s employees. And it is also reasonable for a company to want to discourage its employees from behaving like freelances. After all, firms exist largely because people are more productive together than apart.
But tethering the Yahoos to their stalls in the company’s offices does not seem like the right way to go about boosting their output. Plenty of evidence suggests that letting employees work from home is good for productivity. It allows them to use their time more efficiently and to spend more time with their families and less fuming in traffic jams or squashed on trains. It can reduce companies’ costs. Cisco claimed in 2009 that it was saving $277m a year by allowing its people to telecommute. A study by researchers at Stanford and Beijing Universities of a large Chinese travel company compared the performance of employees allowed to work from home with those who were stuck in the office: among the home-workers, job satisfaction rose, staff turnover fell by half and productivity went up by 13%. Hardly surprising, since a lot of people don’t seem to work while they are at work: last year J.C. Penney, an American retailer, discovered that a third of its headquarters’ bandwidth was taken up by employees watching YouTube videos.
Slapping down the sisters
Ms Mayer’s move is not just a bad idea in itself but also a nail in the coffin of the naive notion that women with big jobs help their sisters up the ladder. Her plan will knock out a few rungs. Flexible employers help women run families and jobs simultaneously. Rigid working practices make combining the two impossible or unpleasant. To be fair, as somebody who took two weeks off to have a baby, Ms Mayer is hardly asking others to do what she would not; but then she has dulled the pain of separation from her child by installing a nursery next to her office. Yahoo’s less privileged and less Stakhanovite women may well hoof it to a friendlier organisation.
But this is not just about women. A well-managed company’s workers want to be productive, and managers trust them to decide how and where they will perform best. If that’s not happening, the boss needs to find out why. You can shackle a Yahoo to his desk, but you can’t make him feel the buzz.