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

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

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

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:

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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