The Yahoo Effect: It’s All About Collaboration — One Way or Another

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Mar 5, 2013

Marissa Mayer and telecommuting each took some hits last week.

A Yahoo search identified 219,000 results last week for “Yahoo + telecommuting” – and a strong theme throughout the many I read was the necessity, value and quality of collaboration in today’s complex, global organizations.

You will recall that the explosive Yahoo HR memo that detonated the media eruption of last week had a central argument:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. …”

The quickly dubbed “ban on telecommuting” followed. And for days, endless defenses of telecommuting dominated the discussion.

On one end Chris Matthews teased a brief discussion of the Yahoo uproar on his Sunday morning show with this stunning line: “Everyone working at home at Yahoo will have to report to the office. Will this bring telecommuting to a screeching halt?”

Some thoughtful calls for collaborative telecommuting

Within the flurry of opinion were many thoughtful and even-handed discussions that emphasized the value of well-designed and well-managed approaches to offsite work. Among the best I saw was in Elliott Masie’s Learning Trends. He cut to the heart of the matter:

So, what is the impact of teleworking on culture and employee performance? That is a complex question and is based primarily on the skills of the organization, the teleworkers themselves and managers/leaders in the organization. If handled well, teleworking can be a major plus for both employees and organizations … I wish that the conversation was really about culture and collaboration – not about location or commuting.”

I take away two points of emphasis from “Yahoo week” and the millions of words written and experiences discussed:

  • The key to high value work and contribution is true collaboration onsite or offsite; and,
  • Genuine collaboration absolutely requires collaborative leaders and collaborating employees.

Organizations thrive more on collaboration than location

At least two fascinating straw men emerged in the online conversation about Yahoo: the marginally productive teleworker left out of the rich office loop, and, the clock-watching cube dweller whose days are whiled away at the water cooler. Whether either stereotype exists in any meaningful number, they would clearly fail the basic collaboration test. No organization would recruit them and hopefully few would tolerate the mistake if they did.

Our communication-driven, teamwork-based, innovative organizations demand people who can collaborate on an ongoing and ad hoc basis. Loners and anti-social occupants of the office cannot fully contribute. And those who work offsite in isolation may create more output, but if they don’t master the online tools that enable them to be accessible and useful to the team, they will not be valued.

Many of last week’s posts talked about the importance of organizational, leader and manager support to make telework work. The best offsite work occurs when leaders are supportive and managers are strong collaborators in the design and maintenance of superior ways of working. A collaborative process insists on mutual respect, expectation and feedback.

In my experience with thousands of such telecommuting pairs, it typically falls to the telecommuter to do the heavy lifting. Right or wrong, fair or not, the primary benefit and the ongoing redesign and optimization of offsite work are with the employee.

Telecommuting is not – or should not – be a benefit or an entitlement that is beyond review and suspension when needed. Better ways of working – and collaborating with others – should prove to be just that over time.

A tale of two collaborative proposals with different results

TLNT editor John Hollon had a great post last week titled How Wrong I Was About Doing Flex Work From Home. In it, John recounts what I would call an excellent story of collaboration and short-term disappointment. Starting a new job, he proposed to his boss that he work four days onsite in San Francisco with a fifth day in LA where his family lived. The work seemed portable, the idea feasible.

But his boss said no, citing the intense, daily collaboration required of this high tech start-up. Disappointed, John accepted the decision.

And in hindsight he concluded that his boss was right. She knew best what was needed for him and the firm, he grew a great deal from the environment and the experience – and today he works at home full-time in a way that makes sense for his current employer.

In short, a collaborative process led to success in a highly collaborative environment. But it didn’t include John’s working offsite.

Less about location, more about collaboration

I have a similar story in which my boss reluctantly agreed to try my working fully offsite in another city – as long as I spent my first three months living in a Holiday Inn near the mother ship while I developed the contact and collaborative relationships that were essential to success.

I agreed. My boss was right; I accepted the deal and it worked well. And for eight years, I continued my periodic Shuttle visits.

Every such story differs in detail and outcomes. But when these schedules work, they include managers and employees considering a plan, leaders leading and employees respecting reasonable decisions and well-managed schedules evolving over time.

Whether it goes with an all onsite or mixed workforce, Yahoo and other companies would do well to focus less on location and much more on collaboration throughout.