Yahoo doesn’t trust their people: What the new (no) work from home policy really means

First of all, I refuse to write it with the exclamation mark.

Yahoo made some big headlines yesterday with the announcement that it would no longer let any employees work from home, either permanently or one day a a week. Some are up in arms about promises being broken, and while I imagine that’s true, I don’t personally know what was promised, and to whom.

One thing I can tell you, though, is this:

Yahoo doesn’t trust their people. Especially their management structure.

Remote work (telecommuting) has certainly been one of the biggest workplace shifts of the Internet age. It’s created many new opportunities where none existed before, for individuals and companies, and now there’s even research showing that people are happier, more productive, and even healthier when they can work from home. For further reading on the topic, I recommend the work of Prof. Pamela Hinds at Stanford.

One tradeoff with remote work, however, is that it puts more pressure on management. Basically, it requires a disciplined, thorough, and consistent style of management throughout any team incorporating remote members. Notice, though, that these are all good things, though, no matter where your people are. (I remember the first time I managed a remote engineer. It didn’t go very well. I didn’t really understand how it was going to be different.)

Many organizations, unwilling or unable to achieve this level of confidence in their management, resort to a more informal style that includes dropping by, looking over shoulders, and generally using visual confirmation that employees are doing what you think they should be. This is very common in early-stage startups, where things happen quickly and few people have management experience or training.

Successful incorporation of remote work boils down to a few things that sound simple but are difficult in practice:

1. Evaluate performance and progress as much as possible by results that are objective and measurable in some way (this goes for company goals as well, not just personal).

2. Communicate the same way with everyone, whether they are remote or local. If people in the office chat in person, but only email with their remote colleagues, they will definitely end up being marginalized.

3. Avoid any discussion that could, indirectly or directly, stigmatize people for being remote.

If you have full organizational support for the above, remote work can be very productive.

In light of all the problems and challenges they currently face, stopping remote work may well be the best option for Yahoo right now. Their ranks have been decimated over the past several years. (I know several good engineers who have left Yahoo, but none who have joined.) They may simply not have full confidence in their staff and management.

It’s sad, but explains why they would take such a drastic step.

Finally, this is something worth thinking about if you’re evaluating an opportunity with a company — if they’re productive and happy with a distributed team, they almost certainly have their processes and management structure in order.