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Will Yahoo! Ban on Employee Telecommuting From Home Ensure Innovation?

February 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced that employees cannot work from home, sparking debates on whether that ban will really help productivity or innovation. Joining Gwen Ifill to discuss Yahoo!'s decision is John Sullivan of San Francisco State University and Micheline Maynard of Forbes.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to another debate over where and how we work.

This week, Marissa Mayer, CEO of the tech giant Yahoo!, announced the company will stop its employees from working at home. The move made headlines around the country, sparking conversations about whether mobile technology helps or hurts productivity.

For our own debate on who benefits from flexible work schedules, we turn to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He advises employers on hiring and human resource practices. And Micheline Maynard, a regular writer for Forbes.com, she is a long-term — longtime reporter on American industry and its work force and, as it happens, has worked from home for more than a decade.

Welcome to you both.

John Sullivan, is Marissa Mayer’s move all about getting all hands on deck, or is it about restricting flexibility, as critics say?

JOHN SULLIVAN, San Francisco State University: Well, it’s about innovation.

So, remember, Yahoo! competes against Apple and Google and Facebook. And in order to be what we would call a serial innovator, like an Apple, coming out with a new product that wows people, you need all hands on board. And so we know from the data — she came from Google. She’s a computer scientist. She’s very data-driven. It’s not an emotional decision.

It turns out the more random interactions between people, the more collaboration you get, the faster decisions are made, and the more innovation you get. And innovation brings in much more money, much more revenue, much more profit. So, for example, Apple revenue per employee, the amount each employee produces every year is six-and-a-half times that of Yahoo!.

So this is really to save the company. This is to say we have to be an innovation machine. We used to be. The only way really around that is to get everyone on board to rebuild the culture.

GWEN IFILL: Micki Maynard, is this about administration? Is this about having all hands on deck? Is it impossible to have all hands on deck if everybody’s not there?

MICHELINE MAYNARD, Forbes.com: Well, Gwen, there’s a crisis at Yahoo!

Marissa Mayer is the fifth CEO in five years. As Professor Sullivan said, Apple is cleaning everybody’s clock in Silicon Valley. But it’s a cultural issue. When I visited Silicon Valley when I was a Hoover fellow at Stanford last fall, I saw all kinds of people with laptops all over the place in Palo Alto, and they weren’t just sipping coffee and having conversations. They were innovating. They were doing their jobs.

And so while we say work from home, I sort of think of it as work remotely, meaning you’re not sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen. You’re out someplace where you can be creative and do your work.

GWEN IFILL: You know, telecommuting — telecommuting is not new, Micki Maynard. Why are we having this argument now?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, that’s very — it’s a very interesting argument right now, because in the stories that I have done for Forbes.com, the reaction to them was really vehement in both directions.

There were people who think of working at home as slackers sitting around in your bunny slippers and your pajamas and cooking casseroles at lunch, instead of doing your work. And then the folks who work from home say, hey, look, I’m online from 6:30 in the morning. Maybe I feed the kids, but then I go back online at night. So you’re getting 16, 18 hours of work out of me.

GWEN IFILL: John Sullivan, how do you measure the innate value of socialization in order to create productivity? How do you know that that works?

JOHN SULLIVAN: Well, you do because it’s data-driven.

So, at Google, for example, they measure the length of the cafe line to get their free food, because they found that, if the line’s too long, people drop off the line. If the line’s too short, son of a gun if people don’t get their food and they don’t collaborate.

So it’s a very scientific approach, and it’s certainly not about productivity. So I would agree telecommuters are very productive. But it’s just not true they’re innovative, because they don’t interact. If I sent you 50 e-mails a day, you would be really upset, but human interaction when you meet 50 people, it isn’t.

So there’s plenty data of this. And certainly, because she’s from Google, the CFO responded to Google’s approach to working at home. They said, well, how many telecommuters would you like? And his answer was, as few as possible.

So this is a — not a productivity issue. It’s an innovation issue. If you are going to be productive and efficient, work at home. It certainly saves gas and the environment. But if you want innovation, the answer is no. Look at the best innovators in the world, Apple and Google. You come to work every day. You come in early, you stay late, and the interaction — and, incidentally, it’s serendipitous.

It’s not scheduled meetings. It’s walking down the hall and someone from H.R. talking to someone they don’t know in engineering and going, hey, what are you doing? And when you say, I just got a Nobel Prize, it forces to people to say, I need to innovate, too.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Micki Maynard this, and then I want you to respond to it as well, which is that part of the concern has been from women who believe that the flexibility allows especially working mothers to be able to work from home and be part of the work force.

We even had Gloria Steinem take a shot at that last night on this program. Micki, is that what this is about as well, or is that completely off the point?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: You know, I was reading a lot of comments about this. And I’m trying to stay kind of in the middle about it for what Ms. Mayer’s motivations are.

But people are saying, this is a way to get us to quit. This is a way to cut jobs. This is a layoff by telling us to come into the office. I mean, first of all, I thought that this working from home battle was done. I thought this was something that 10 or 12 years ago, everybody got kind of comfortable with.

But it is a tough economy. And there are a certain number of jobs out there. And employers can say, look, I want to see you. I want to know that you’re at your desk. But folks also would say, look, I might be at my desk, I might be playing solitary, and those meetings that you want me to participate in, those are time-killers, and I am much better off in an environment of my choosing. I will come into the office. I will do off-sites. I will Skype with you. I can see you on my computer screen. I can interact with you on a conference bridge.

So just sitting in a room together, I have sat in a lot of silent rooms where we were supposed to be innovating, and nobody had any ideas, and we broke up and went and got some ideas and came back.

GWEN IFILL: John Sullivan, does it disproportionately affect women in the workplace?

JOHN SULLIVAN: No.

The average telecommuter is actually a 40-year-old male. So what it affects is the shareholders have children, the shareholders have grandparents. This is about money. This company is not going to survive unless it gets back to serial innovation mode.

So the answer is, no, this is about data and Micki’s wrong. Most firms do it well. They do telecommuting. These are five firms that have to be serial commuters. You’re competing against Apple. It’s a machine, Google the same way. So, they have no choice.

And, by the way, Yahoo! knows how to lay off people. They have done it five times in the last four years or whatever. It’s not a way to avoid layoffs. It’s a way to save the company. And the stock is at $20 dollars. Apple and Google is at $800 dollars. The answer is no. If that stock goes up to $800 dollars, everyone, women included, will be treated better, they will have a secure job, and they will be rich. That’s what this is about.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you both a final question, and I have to ask you to keep it brief. Is this a trend that we’re seeing? Is this — Yahoo! unique, Micki Maynard, or are they an outlier?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: The reaction to Yahoo! will tell what happens with this issue. I happen to believe that Yahoo! will have to modify this policy because they have upset the apple cart, no pun intended.

GWEN IFILL: John Sullivan?

JOHN SULLIVAN: Every comment you see is not from a Yahoo! employee.

No, they’re not going to modify this, and, no, it’s not a trend. This is only for serial innovators. There’s five, six firms in the world that need to innovate like this. No, it’s not a trend.

GWEN IFILL: OK. John Sullivan of San Francisco State University, Micki Maynard of Forbes.com, thank you both very much.