A couple of weeks ago, it seemed like everywhere I looked online I saw an article about Marissa Mayer’s new policy at Yahoo about not allowing employees to work from home. (If you missed it, you can read the actual leaked internal memo here.) After all the ruckus began, I had conversations about this with a number of friends, and a few even asked whether I would blog about it.
Why, yes, I think I will.
I find the whole situation to be fascinating, for three reasons:
1) ORGANIZATIONS ARE ABSURDLY COMPLEX
First, no matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, there are articles to support your side. Looking for research that supports that working in the office will boost productivity? No problem! Want the opposite data that says working from home is the better way to go? Here you go. Welcome to the world of data — where, “If you have a stubborn opinion, we can justify why the position you want to take is the only right one!”
This is interesting, because the real situation — what’s actually happening inside Yahoo — is certainly more nuanced than any outsider can appreciate. Any organization made of human beings (which is to say, all of them) is much more complex than we want it to be. We’d like it to be easy — ideally, we could spout some anecdotal truths, throw around some nice research statistics, wave our magic wands, throw fairy dust in the HR person’s face, and fix the damn problem already. But this really isn’t how life works, is it? Like anything worth having, a great organization takes a lot of frickin’ work. There’s no way around it.
2) THIS KIND OF POLICY IS USUALLY STUPID
Second, as mentioned in the point above, this kind of policy is usually stupid — and please notice that I’m not saying “Yahoo’s policy” or it’s “always stupid.” There may well be very good reasons for making this decision within Yahoo (reference Point #1), and I don’t want to comment on that. What I do want to talk about, however, is any leader who would potentially take the Yahoo example and use it as a blunt instrument to support their own un-human agenda.
Generally speaking, whenever we codify a policy that takes decisions away from smart people, it’s usually going in the wrong direction. (There are some great thoughts on why this is the case in a Wired article here.) Here’s the way I think about it: the majority of our work is going in the direction of greater ambiguity, which means that we’re expecting our employees to habitually use their brains to make better decisions on behalf of the company. We are giving them this message — “Be smarter!” — while at the same time, with a policy like Yahoo’s, telling them we don’t trust them to know how or where or what to work on. This sends the opposite message, namely: “You’re too dumb to know what to do!”
This terrible contradiction is perhaps the greatest oxymoron of the way management works, and somehow it’s still popular almost everywhere… which leads us to Point #3.
3) THERE’S A MUCH BIGGER PROBLEM WE’RE IGNORING
Third, while I understand the vitriolic and hyperbolic nature of media, I’m still frustrated that a story like this can “blow up” while there are tiny organizational wars being fought everywhere that don’t seem to ever get attention on a larger scale.
For example, in my experience of having worked with many different kinds of companies, the vast majority of organizations still don’t have any workplace flexibility at all. THAT’S what we should really be upset about. In fact, in some organizations there are actually policies in place that explicitly prohibit flexible work.
What, you’re not shocked about this!? Yes, I know you’re not — and that just proves my point that we’ve become far too adept at ignoring larger systemic issues. After all, it’s much easier to point our fingers at Ms. Mayer or Yahoo and say, “I can’t believe you’d do this!” than to take a good look at how archaic our own policies might be, isn’t it?
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