Yahoo case doesn’t tell the whole story of teleworking

Yahoo! Sunnyvale headquarters.  October 28, 2001 (Y! Photo / Brian McGuiness)Yahoo! made headlines across the US and the rest of the world this week by announcing they are terminating the company’s telework program.  Does this signal, broadly, the pending demise of telework?  Here’s my take: this story is actually deeper than just about telework. Yahoo! has been wandering around aimlessly for a number of years, and it would appear that this particular measure is intended as some overdue shock therapy to jump-start a much needed culture shift and focus on what the company needs to survive in a world of rapid innovation and “big bang disruption” (see March 2013 HBR article by Larry Downes and Paul F. Nunes).

If Yahoo were a cat, one might say it’s used up 8 of it’s 9 lives, and has maybe one last chance to reinvent itself before failing for the last time.

I don’t see this as an indictment of telework per se; by CEO Marissa Mayer in the context of her company? Sure, and appropriately so.  I’ve never, personally, advocated telework as a stand-alone workplace strategy. Telework is certainly not a panacea, but definitely can be a very powerful and positive tool for enabling and aligning an organization’s workforce, but not in a vacuum. Telework is actually more about effective communications and management regarding HOW and WHEN work happens than it is about WHERE work happens.  Absent effective communications and management, it really doesn’t matter where people are sitting, even at their desks in the office all day long – positive results will only occur randomly.

Noted for their “virtual” nature, hugely successful 37 Signals has a keen vision and clarity of purpose (read ReWork by co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson). This clarity is arguably easier to propagate through a smaller organization than a larger one.  The folks at the Telework Association recently renamed themselves to the Mobile Work Association. They have plenty of success stories – especially in the public sector (sometimes criticized for having too much scale…) – of organizations that are thriving.

Yahoo!’s approach is all about finding their way and setting a clear new direction for the company.  Anita Kamouri and Eric Richart wrote, in a white paper titled “Virtual and Distributed Work: Using Data to Drive Business-Focused Decision Making” sponsored by New Ways of Working Network back in 2007:

“As workforces in global organizations become increasingly more distributed, the need to make decisions that affect the design, implementation and management of remote work and virtual teams becomes ever more prevalent. The potential impact of distributed work on the productivity, cost efficiency and competitiveness of the organization, coupled with the risks of failure to implement a successful transition because of poor decisions, make the need to understand the decision-making process about distributed work critical.”

Mayer and Yahoo! are currently staring down “risks of failure” as concisely put by Kamouri and Richart.

Demands on the knowledge workplace are changing big time. Technologies and demographics have now changed dramatically enough that old workplace models no longer fit personal demands and business needs. Tech companies especially are seeing the consequences in their own business models, no longer being able to depend on users in fixed settings or comparable technology environments.  Mobility and mash-ups are driving work today. The need for multiple, redundant and morphing social, physical and technological networks is clear. Creating the new workplace demands a new way of looking at the world.

We have found through our work that the most responsive workplace is one that emerges from well-structured interactions that begin to establish and understand future work and cultural characteristics. The Emergent Workplace is about the future. Finding it requires examination and conjecture about future patterns and relationships, not careful examination of the current world.


Clark SeptClark Sept is the co-founder of Business Place Strategies Inc, a US based workplace strategy and change management consultancy which works with blue chip and public sector clients across the USA.