Marissa Mayer created a firestorm this week by issuing an email requiring all employees who work from home to begin daily commuting to Yahoo offices. Some folks are saying this is going to be a blow to long-term employees, hamper productivity and will harm the company. Others are saying this will improve communications and cooperation, thin out unproductive employees and help Yahoo.
While there are arguments to be made on both sides, the issue is far simpler than many people make it out to be – and the implications for shareholders are downright scary.
Yahoo has been a strugging company for several years. And the reason has nothing to do with its work from home policy. Yahoo has lacked an effective strategy for a decade – and changing its work from home policy does nothing to fix that problem.
In the late 1990s almost every computer browser had Yahoo as its home page. But Yahoo long ago lost its leadership position in content aggregation, search and ad placement. Now, Yahoo is irrelevant. It has no technology advantage, no product advantage and no market advantage. It is so weak in all markets that its only value has been as a second competitor that keeps the market leader from being attacked as a monopolist!
A series of CEOs have been unable to develop a new strategy for Yahoo to make it more like Amazon or Apple and less like – well, Yahoo. With much fanfare Ms. Mayer was brought into the flailing company from Google, which is a market leader, to turn around Yahoo. Only she's been on the job 7 months, and there still is no apparent strategy to return Yahoo to greatness.
Instead, Ms. Mayer has delivered to investors a series of tactical decisions, such as changing the home page layout and now the work from home policy. If tactical decisions alone could fix Yahoo Carol Bartz would have been a hero – instead of being pushed out by the Board in disgrace.
Many leading pundits are enthused with CEO Mayer's decision to force all employees into offices. They are saying she is "making the tough decisions" to "cut the corporate cost structure" and "push people to be more productive." Underlying this lies thinking that the employees are lazy and to blame for Yahoo's failure.
Balderdash. It's not employees' fault Yahoo, and Ms. Mayer, lack an effective strategy to earn a high return on their efforts.
It isn't hard for a new CEO to change policies that make it harder for people to do their jobs – by cutting hours out of their day via commuting. Or lowering productivity as they are forced into endless meetings that "enhance communication and cooperation." Or forcing them out of the company entirely with arcane work rules in a misguided effort to lower operating costs or overhead. Any strategy-free CEO can do those sorts of things.
Just look at how effective this approach was for
- "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap at Scott Paper
- "Fast Eddie" Lampert at Sears
- Carol Bartz at Yahoo
- Meg Whitman at HP
- Brian Dunn at Best Buy
- Gregory Rayburn at Hostess
- Antonio Perez at Kodak
The the fact that some Yahoo employees work from home has nothing to do with the lack of strategy, innovation and growth at Yahoo. That failure is due to leadership. Bringing these employees into offices will only hurt morale, increase real estate costs and push out several valuable workers who have been diligently keeping afloat a severely damaged Yahoo ship. These employees, whether in an office or working at home, will not create a new strategy for Yahoo. And bringing them into offices will not improve the strategy development or innovation processes.
Regardless of anyone's personal opinions about working from home, it has been the trend for over a decade. Work has changed dramatically the last 30 years, and increasingly productivity relies on having time, alone, to think and produce charts, graphs, documents, lines of code, letters, etc. Technologies, from PCs to mobile devices and the software used on them (including communications applications like WebEx, Skype and other conferencing tools) make it possible for people to be as productive remotely as in person. Usually more productive removed from interruptions.
Taking advantage of this trend helps any company to hire better, and be more productive. Going against this trend is simply foolish – regardless the intellectual arguments made to support such a decision. Apple fought the trend to PCs and almost failed. When it wholesale adopted the trend to mobile, seriously reducing its commitment to PC markets, Apple flourished. It is ALWAYS easier to succeed when you work with, and augment trends. Fighting trends ALWAYS fails.
Yahoo investors have plenty to be worried about. Yahoo doesn't need a "tough" CEO. Yahoo needs a CEO with the insight to create, and implement, a new strategy. And a series of tactical actions do not sum to a new strategy. As importantly, the new strategy – and its implementation – needs to augment trends. Not go against trends while demonstrating the clout of a new CEO.
If you've been waiting to figure out if Ms. Mayer is the CEO that can make Yahoo a great company again, the answer is becoming clear. She increasingly appears very unlikely to have what it takes.