Mama Said: Lay You Off

“Call it a Layoff… They Been Here for Years”

My apologies to Ladies Love Cool J (aka LL Cool J) but I couldn’t resist the urge…

Last week Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo laid out a directive that within a few months all remote workers would either need to start working in the office or find a job elsewhere. You can call this mandate an attack on remote working. You can state that Ms. Mayer was being forthright when she said this was about the productivity of the company – not the productivity of the individual. I think all those assertions are false; this is, at its core, all about trimming the workforce without having to go through lay-offs.  In the leaked office memo from head of Human Resources, Jackie Reses the tenor of the message is that in order to be a successful and creative company we need to foster “hallway conversations”.   I’ll agree that this is true for some roles, but you can’t tell me that every single position: from software developers to marketing to the networking team foster creativity towards the bottom line.  It’s truly the bottom line that is the issue as well.  Using figures available from Forbes.com, Google (Mayer’s former company and Yahoo’s biggest corporate rival) has significantly better per-employee productivity compared to Yahoo: 53,861 Google employees generate $931,657 in revenue per worker, 170% higher than Yahoo’s $344,758 worth of revenue per employee.

The subtext of the memo is what is telling: Yahoo is bleeding because it’s over-staffed and under-creative.  This is not going to help things either.  My first thought when I saw this hit the news cycle was personal.  I’ve been telecommuting for over a dozen years now in my role as a Database Administrator for a major healthcare system.  I was making my way through Detroit Metro Airport returning from the Microsoft MVP Summit, interacting with some of the brightest minds and most-driven technical individuals using Microsoft tools globally, and caught the news from CNN while waiting for a flight home.  As a telecommuter this felt like an assault on my abilities and hard work built to make the remote working format work for me.  Then I started to realize it’s not about me.  It’s not about remote working.  It’s all about trimming staff and making a last-ditch effort to stimulate creativity in a struggling company.  Yahoo tried to beat Microsoft and Google.  Google realized early on it’s not just about search.  Microsoft was an established software titan.  Yahoo, too late in the process started to try to become something beyond simply search and it’s not working.  They’ve even gone down the path of partnering with Microsoft and that’s been far less lucrative than hoped for.  They’re slimming down for something new; but they’re likely trimming the muscle with the fat – probably in greater proportions than they will have hoped.

The Glamorous Life of the Remote Worker

As I stated, I’ve been remote working in some form now for over a dozen years. I can attest that it’s not for everyone. I’ve seen many of my coworkers who thought that working from home would be like Narnia without all those animals wanting to give you tea and/or kill you. It’s not.  As a guy who tends to show up for work in t-shirts, mismatched socks and novelty boxer shorts (today’s choice – gnomes) stand back ladies I can definitely attest remote working is not glamorous.  I’ve yet to spot a glittery centaur hanging around my printer or bump into any unicorns as I break for lunch (you Office Dwellers would call it “taking a shower”.)  No, like those who also succeed at telecommuting long-term my life is full of 50-60 hour weeks, often at the expense of my family.  It’s made up of feeling as though I’m constantly needing to prove myself to my coworkers, management, and peers.  You’ll notice I didn’t include customers in that list because they reap the benefits of the drive to prove I’m not just sitting around pants-free on chat-roulette for eight hours a day. I’ve been told by Managers that my customers feel I’m more accessible when I’m working remote than I am on the rare days I’m in the office. Unfettered by the need to be confined in non-productive meetings in the office I’m able to actually accomplish things for those I’m paid to service.  In some ways I suspect the remote working model and the need to drive myself harder and faster than my peers led me to the MVP role with Microsoft I’ve held since 2009.  It’s also made me a stronger technical asset, taught me time management skills beyond what I ever thought I was capable of, and has forced me from being simply someone who does their job well, into someone who does their job well and communicates/educates those around them.  It’s forced me into being skilled with communicating my needs, and actions to my peers and management.  It’s definitely made me a better listener, particularly when dealing with customers and peers.  I have to make sure that my time with customers and coworkers is used effectively so we don’t have to revisit issues multiple times via the distractions of repetitive email and the dreaded time-suck known as a conference call.  In the end, remote working is not glamorous, no.  It’s hard, it’s derided by those who have either been blocked or failed at the work-remote opportunity in their company.  However I wouldn’t be doing it after all these years if I didn’t think it was the best model of work for me.  If I didn’t feel the successes it’s given me and my company didn’t vastly out-weigh the longer hours and stress of constantly trying to manage the work-life balance, even after twelve years.

Scott Hanselman Is Spying On Me

I had set off to write the comprehensive post about why Ms. Mayer’s attack on remote working may be an effective business approach to trim a bloated workforce on-the-cheap but at the expense of the image of remote working. I was going to lay out how much more efficient I am at my job as a remote worker. How the need to prove myself as being “on task” when invisible to those I work with is beneficial to the company (think no clear delineation between work and home and the resulting 50-60 hour work weeks that result). Then I had a retweet of Scott Hanselman’s recent post on the exact same subject hit my Twitter feed.  All the things I wanted to put into words here had already been laid out:  the guilt, the long hours, being “that guy” on the conference calls.  It’s as though he was living my life.  I think he is to some extent.  Telecommuters – particularly those who do so a majority of their time -  are brothers and sisters in arms.  We see work differently; only as those who have no office other than the one we maintain in our homes.  It sounds like I don’t have all the technical issues Scott has seemed to deal with in regards to VPN so some of us are luckier than others.  He clearly defines the remote working experience and how we telecommuters feel.  I also think he’s dialed in well on the Yahoo issue.  This is a matter of Ms. Mayer making an effort to trim budget and go lean.  I’m sure there is an issue with abuse of the privilege of working from home but I’m equally sure that those abusers are in the minority.

The Excuse for (Primarily) Creative-Based Firms

In a recent Huffington Post article, Debbie Madden, Executive Vice President of Cyrus Innovation lent her support to Ms. Mayer parroting the tone from Reses’ leaked memo that “this debate is not about individual productivity; it is about company productivity.”  While that may be the case for Ms. Madden’s firm, an Agile development consulting firm, it’s not the case for all companies and should not be construed as such.  I’m sure that Cyrus’ staff tends to be predominantly creation-based as an Agile development firm.  As a Database Administrator I spend a great deal of time having to deal with the messes made and poor development decisions that result from Agile development.  This is great when I’m wearing my Contractor hat on nights & weekends.  It’s a monumental junk-punch when I’m on the clock for my day job.  Just because team members are in the same physical space it doesn’t mean they are making any better decisions.  Yahoo is like any other large company.  There are pockets of creativity, pools of operational-based workers that “keep the lights on” and I’m sure there are plenty of layers of management.  A solid, focused operations-based employee should be afforded the ability to try telecommuting; it’s not for everyone and there will be failure and attrition.  There will be some abuse… there will be success.  Abuse and failure is noticed – as Scott Hanselman stated, “the code don’t lie”.  If someone is not productive their work suffers and it’s noticed.  This happens for workers no matter the setting.  Under the scrutiny of remote-work arrangements it’s notice much quicker.  Attrition solves itself: the worker returns to the workplace.  That leaves those that succeed.  Successful telecommuters reduce their carbon footprint, save the company money (cost of powering that office equipment is now a burden of the worker and their home office), and many studies show they work longer hours and are vastly more productive.

My Experience with Getting Thrown Out with the Bath Water

In the Summer of 2010 I encountered a similar situation as the remote workers of Yahoo are being faced with today. My ultimatum was not given months from the deadline for returning to the office – I was given five days. At that time I had been remotely working in some form for almost ten years. We had a few bad apples that were abusing the remote working arrangements and they were being called on the carpet for it. Add to the mix a Director who was very poor at directing and instead of singling-out the individuals, when confronted by one of them he caved and stated the change would be applied to all those staff members who reported to him. I wrote about this situation in a post here as I was about to re-join the company I had left when the ultimatum was issued.

The short story is: I had a job offer within 48 hours of being told I had to start reporting to the office.  It was 100% remote and would allow for me to not have to find arrangements in less than a week to deal with having two young boys home alone during the Summer.  It would not require me to change how I had been successfully working remote for over ten years, despite the fact that I was told this was never about my performance.  I left the company for three months, and was then invited to return with a raise and promotion when they could not fill my position and the Director was being escorted to the door along with some of those individuals who were abusing the remote work policy.

In my case the company was very smart.  They realized that losing talented and devoted team members is more costly in the long run in terms of both money and success.  What do I think is going to happen with Yahoo?  I suspect that the talented remote staff are already being courted by rivals or will strike out on their own, perhaps to challenge some of Yahoo’s peripheral projects.  I would bet that the mediocre and poor performers will return to the offices as will some of the talented employees but overwhelmingly you’re going to see Yahoo shed as many talented and valuable employees as they will dead weight.

In the end I hope that Yahoo, and Marissa Mayer are successful in turning Yahoo around.  I don’t think this makes Mayer a bad person, nor  a poor leader.  I do, however think this is a bad decision.  Perhaps Yahoo will realize that it’s best to target the problem with a scalpel and not with a hatchet.  Only time will tell.