February 27, 2013

Rethinking Embodiment at Yahoo!

As the tabloids might put it, tongues have been wagging in Silicon Valley over Yahoo's decision to eliminate telecommuting by its employees. It seems the company’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, wants to promote creativity by insisting on proximity. 

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings," said the memo from the company’s head of Human Resources. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

Yahoo’s decision has been widely reported in the mainstream press, so I don’t need to rehash the details. I can’t, however, resist making three quick observations.

1. Mayer seems to be aggressively attacking a problem that stymied her predecessor, Carol Bartz: Institutional inertia.

I wrote a blog entry last October describing the inevitability of inertia at large, entrenched companies like Yahoo and Microsoft. The piece cited Bartz's response when asked during a conference if she had any advice for the woman who replaced her. Mayer shouldn't kid herself, Bartz replied, about turning things around overnight. 

“It’s very, very hard to affect culture,” she said. “And you can get surprised thinking you’re farther down the path of change than you really are because, frankly, most of us like the way things are.”

Mayer’s latest move seems designed to decisively shake up the status quo at Yahoo, and judging from the reactions the memo’s getting there, she’s succeeded. 

Marissa Mayer
2. Yahoo’s move deflates one of the reigning mythologies of the Internet revolution: That you don’t have to be in the same room to share genuine connection with your fellow human beings. “We need to be one Yahoo!,” the memo says, “and that starts with physically being together.”

Obviously this is not a philosophy Yahoo would hope to see adopted by its customers, whose communal needs the company would presumably prefer still be satisfied virtually.

3. Yahoo’s memo demonstrates a not-so-glittering side to Silicon Valley glamor. Ambitious young techies are lured to companies like Google and Facebook in part because they offer their employees the coolest possible office spaces and an endless supply of perks, from free cafeterias and on-site masseurs to pool tables, hot tubs, ice cream parlors, dry cleaners, and gyms. 

In truth, of course, all that coolness is there not only to promote collaboration and boost morale, but also to keep employees working at the office as long as possible.

The glamor in turn promotes another great myth: that technology is about freedom. The head of an outplacement firm, commenting on Yahoo's telecommuting decision in the New York Times, came closer to the truth.

“A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home,” he said, “because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

©Doug Hill, 2013

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