A few weeks ago, a bunch of hoopla was made about Marissa Mayer’s decision to drastically cut back on Yahoo’s telecommuting. All of the commotion I have read or heard seem to uniformly condemn her actions as petty, controlling, and bad for business. While I am sympathetic with the work from home cause, I also feel there has been little discussion about some of the challenges a large, troubled company like Yahoo might face when managing remote workers. Having worked in small and large organizations with remote co-workers, I think two factors could largely affect the success of telecommuting.

The first factor is simply having a telecommuting policy. I have seen some companies slide into telecommuting. That is to say, people start working from home with or without explicit permission and utilize varied types and levels of communication. Without best practices or a common toolset, many of these employees become both isolated and obfuscated which inevitably impacts productivity and collaboration.

The second factor is employee culture. Good culture is when everyone is engaged to do their best because they have faith in the organization and their co-workers. Many work from home advocates seem to downplay culture and take a purely structuralist view when arguing for telecommuting— that the improved quality of life will be matched with improved productivity.

The structuralist argument has valid points. The benefits of telecommuting does help morale and entice better talent. But say we have a company that has gone through a rough patch and has, as mentioned above, kinda sorta started letting people work from home without any process? Some of these employees are producers, some are naturally disengaged given the company’s health, and others aren’t going to be productive no matter what. Now let’s say this company is trying to turn itself around. Management knows that part of this involves engaging employees to weed out bad behavior and recognize productivity.

While I have no knowledge of the issues that plague Yahoo, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that one of those issues is non-producers whose numbers and level of disengagement is obscured in-part by telecommuting. Given that problem, I can only think of two possible solutions.

  1. Start enforcing specific telecommuting software and processes in hopes that doing so will empower employees, kickstart apathetic workers and weed out non-producers.
  2. Force telecommuters back into the office where they will have greater visibility and engagement.

Number 1 is the best structuralist option. Simply add process and tools and the producers will produce more, the apathetic will be turned around, and the do-nothings will be easily identifiable. The problem is that new processes don’t stick well without cultural buy-in. A great work from home policy will fall flat if even the best employees don’t take management’s changes seriously. Worse yet, only the bad seeds could end up going through the motions of a new process if only to maintain an illusion of productivity. Who does management fire in that scenario?

Number 2 sucks because, in the short run, it punishes the good, apathetic, and bad equally. That said, direct engagement is necessary to improve office culture. Telecommuting advocates downplay the level of physical presence required to change culture and facilitate collaboration. I found this was largely true when working for a small company where only a minimal physical presence was required to know and interact with a couple dozen co-workers. That said, this was not the case at a company closer to the size of Yahoo. Interacting with co-workers from other divisions, let alone knowing they existed, was much more difficult and even more-so for those working remote.

Despite drawbacks, I could definitely see how temporarily forcing people back into the office could help Yahoo reinvigorate culture and collaboration to support performers, turnaround apathetic workers, and identify those who need to be let go. Once things are improved, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Yahoo reinstitute a truly informed work from home policy.

Telecommuting is a great way to improve employee morale as well as attract and retain talent. Having a telecommuting policy is a no brainer for many well run organizations with an existing solid culture. That said, Yahoo hasn’t been well run and that has no doubt affected the morale of many of its employees. Mayer has been charged with turning things around and suspending remote working may actually be necessary to get everyone onboard.