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Barbara Shelly: Yahoo CEO made good call on working at office

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, March 6, 2013, at 12 a.m.

The new chief executive of Yahoo spoke, and a nation of telecommuters howled back.

Actually, it was Yahoo’s human resources director, Jackie Reses, who issued the controversial memo, marked “proprietary and confidential – do not forward.”

(Dream on.)

But the instructions came from the top, and that would be Marissa Mayer, the longtime Google executive who was hired in July to revive the slumbering Yahoo, and who is a new mom, to boot.

In the interest of promoting innovation, Mayer said, employees with work-at-home arrangements would be expected to report to Yahoo’s offices beginning in June.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” the memo said. “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.”

Judging from the uproar, you might think Mayer had ordered her tech workers to report to the coal mines, instead of to offices where perks include on-site fitness centers, free meals and ergonomic support chairs.

Arbitrary, folks said.

Out of touch.

Unfair to working parents who, unlike Mayer, do not have the luxury of a nursery next door to her office.

And then there is the productivity debate. Some workplace experts contend that working at home makes employees happier and more productive. And certainly those happy employees are quick to affirm the theory.

Not being a frequent telecommuter, I can’t speak from experience. But it makes sense that one could log more hours and plow through more tasks if freed from the hassle of getting to and from the office, dealing with impromptu visitors and hiking the length of two football fields to get to the restroom.

But while we’re on the subject, can I say something here? This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Here it is: Productivity is overrated.

Over the past few years, while many sectors have been hemorrhaging jobs, those of us fortunate enough to work have been productive as all get out.

Whether based at home or the office, we are hunkered at our desks, cranking out whatever it is we need to get done for companies that are trying to achieve more tasks with fewer workers.

Yes, we accomplish a lot in terms of volume. But what we sacrifice with excessive productivity is creativity and craftsmanship and ideas.

Some of us rarely pause for conversation, much less lunch. A while ago, a senior partner in a law firm told me he had to order his associates to go to lunch with clients and each other, just to get away from their desks and get some perspective. I hear this from many people in the workplace. The yield is abundant, but the harvest is bland and uninspired.

Perhaps a shake-up is called for. Bring the telecommuters into the office so they can get to know their co-workers by something other than an e-mail address. And send the office workers home for a nap, which research indicates will boost both productivity and performance.

Either way, the workplace and the people served by it would be better off if more companies – and workaholic employees, too – could bring themselves to trade a bit of productivity for innovation.

Mayer’s long tenure at Google – where employees are encouraged to stay on campus with amenities such as on-site dry cleaning, game rooms and nap pods – has evidently convinced her that, in the tech sector, anyway, ideas and concepts bubble up through spontaneous interaction, or “casual collisions,” as they’re called at Google.

Some workforce flexibility is essential. Employees should be able to work from home if a child is ill, for example. And for some of us, the ability to work from home while snowed in last month was greatly appreciated.

But Mayer apparently wants to sacrifice some degree of productivity, and morale, for the sake of innovation. That is her right. She was hired, after all, to rescue a sinking company, not to coddle the work-at-home crowd.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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