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Marissa Mayer's Guide to Being Productive: It's About Data, Not Politics

February 28, 2013, 12:00 AM
Mayer1

Marissa Mayer has ordered Yahoo's "stay@home" telecommuters back to the office, according to a leaked internal memo that has become a larger meme about the 21st century workplace. The reaction to the memo was swift, and much of it negative. 

Richard Branson, for instance, called the move "a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever." Other critics have called Mayer a hypocrite for building a nursery for her baby in her office. Not every cubicle-bound Yahoo, after all, has that option. And for working mothers, Maureen Dowd points out, telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life. 

To make matters worse, a Stanford University study that tracked stay-at-employees at a Chinese travel agency was released around the same time the Yahoo memo was leaked. The study found these workers were more productive than their counterparts who hailed from the office. So not only did it appear that Mayer was bucking one of the growing workplace trends of the 21st century, her decision also seemed to fly in the face of social science research. 

But this issue is not as simple as it has been made out to be. After all, not every company is the same. "This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home," read a Yahoo statement in response to the controversy. "This is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now."

Indeed, as Mayer's defenders point out, this is Mayer being true to her own credo from her days at Google: Focus on data, not politics

Mayer took over a tech dinosaur and appears to be making the tough decisions that her predecessors failed to make. Might this policy change, as objectionable as it might appear to some, simply represent Mayer's good-faith attempt to reign in the bloated infrastructure that she inherited? As several former Yahoo employees have confided to various media sources, Yahoo's work-from-home policy was widely abused. Moreover, it's hard to take the criticism seriously that Mayer is bringing Yahoo back to the Stone Age, when in fact the company is still very much stuck there

While we do not know of the internal data Mayer used to make this decision, isn't it reasonably safe to assume that Yahoo's metric-minded CEO didn't simply make the call on a whim? As Michael Schrage argued in a Harvard Business Review blog:

In all likelihood, Mayer has taken good, hard looks at Yahoo's top 250 performers and top 20 projects and come to her own conclusions about who's creating real value — and how — in her company. She knows who her best people are.

According to this view, Mayer simply spotted an inefficiency and then took the steps she was brought onboard to implement. 

What's the Big Idea?

Are we more productive working from home or from the office? This question did not begin, nor will it end, with Marissa Mayer's top-down mandate. Moreover, we need to have a critical discussion that goes beyond how we measure productivity. What about happiness? Will Yahoo and other companies lose top talent if they embrace inflexible workplace practices? Will those workers who decide to stay slowly burn out and show decreased productivity over time? 

It doesn't have to be that way. In order to have a productive and highly motivated workforce companies like Yahoo need to create the right work environment. The Yahoo memo stresses the importance of physically being together. In other words, Yahoo needs its employees to be better onsite collaborators, working face-to-face in order for the company to innovate. Who else does a good job at that? Look no further than Mayer's alma mater, Google. 

What's the Significance?

Can Mayer make Yahoo more like Google? She'll need to. Consider this comparison, via Forbes: "Google’s 53,861 employees generate $931,657 in revenue per worker, 170% higher than Yahoo’s $344,758 worth of revenue per employee."

In order to nurture effective collaboration, and benefit from greater productivity, Mayer, like any CEO, needs to manage collaboration, and eliminate distraction. That begins with the wisdom of knowing the difference.

The modern workplace, says 37 Signals CEO Jason Fried, "with the open work space and people cramped in, really close to one another, encourages interruption. It doesn’t encourage collaboration." In the video below, Fried describes the modern office as a morass of morale and productivity-busting interruptions. 

After getting distracted from their real work all day, Fried points out that a lot of people end up having to take their work home with them at night or over the weekend. 

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

 

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