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Marissa Mayer’s love letter to innovation

marissa-mayer-thmbThere’s been a lot of back and forth this week following the news that Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, had invoked a company policy change which in general terms required all Yahoo’s remote workers to relocate back to the company’s headquarters and other primary locations.

If the first part of the edict wasn’t interesting enough, the implication of not relocating – regardless of the basis upon which you were hired by Yahoo – was that employees would be advised to seek alternate employment.

The key paragraph from her memo says:

“We need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

The general reaction to this news has ranged from:

  • A confirmation of a long lingering suspicion that working from home is the productivity equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes and Mayer is right to call it thus.
  • Yahoo has totally lost it.

I think there’s another, more plausible justification which I’ll share in a paragraph or two’s time.

However there’s no doubt in my mind that having worked from home during numerous spells in my own professional career, and having run Xero’s fledgling UK operation which was 100% home-based for the majority of its first three years in the UK – remote working and virtual teams do work.

Although remote working is not without its issues as I wrote last year once we had transitioned from being 100% virtual to being office-based in the UK.

If you get the culture right, hire good people and recognise that asking your people (or entire teams) to work remotely brings with it a management overhead that you ignore at your peril – done right, remote working is a huge boon.

And the cloud generation to which Xero belongs adds even more twists to the story of remote working – not least in enabling business owners to choose to work wherever they like, or wherever their social or domestic lives require them to be. And the effortless ability to focus a cross-functional virtual team like an accountant or other stakeholders around a centralised set of small business financial data to run and guide a business remotely is invaluable.

So, if remote working is so effective, why this draconian Yahoo policy?

My take on why Yahoo chose to call time on remote working has more to do with chronic operational dysfunction at Yahoo than Marissa Mayer just having a downer on people who work in their jim-jams.

After years of drift and decline under a succession of leaders, it’s likely that Yahoo finds itself stricken by the late stage symptoms of a Bozo Explosion.

Intercontinental Bozo Explosion

Bozo Explosions are very bad news for any business. However, there’s one thing that’s more dangerous than a Bozo Explosion and that’s the even more deadly Intercontinental Bozo Explosion where your Bozo army is scattered to the four corners of the land.

It’s important to note that before Mayer joined Yahoo last year, she had spent her entire career at Google and, pertinently, for almost the entire duration of Google’s existence as a company, right from Google’s start-up phase. And so Mayer can bear personal witness to many of the innovations Google pioneered over the last fifteen years and, critically, the circumstances of how those innovations came about. And I’d bet only handful of them came from remote teams.

It’s therefore a solid assumption that Mayer knows better than most people the value of the kind of innovation that can only come when teams of great, talented people are co-located in a tightly packed petri dish of creative tension and innovation. And while I’m sure that Yahoo has many great people, it’s obviously no longer a company you’d associate with innovation of any kind, let alone the kind of innovation it needs to summon in order to secure its future.

So, if I’m right then Yahoo’s shareholders should be very encouraged that Mayer is grabbing the bull by both horns and it’s clean-up and rehab under her stewardship is right on track.

And Mayer’s policy is exactly just what the doctor needed to order, in spite of how it’s being portrayed by the media.

 

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1 comment

Gayle Buchanan
3 March 2013 #

wow, amazing post Gary.
Totally agree that the right people in the right positions can flourish, just this week spoke to an accounting firm about the positives of Xero and the cloud – means more mums can continue working while at home looking after the sick children – it’s a win win situation.

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