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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

February 27, 2013 at 5:50 PM

Yahoo’s new office rules are a challenge

There’s a lot for America to grapple with now.

There’s overdue gun control legislation, looming cuts in federal spending, the Violence Against Women Act (that was finally approved by Congress today) and the Supreme Court shrugging at voting policies and secret spy programs.

But what’s the biggest debate of the week, at least when viewed through the periscope of social media?

Whether a floundering California tech company should let some of its employees continue working from home. While the nation’s character teeters, we’re debating and dissecting an internal Yahoo policy affecting a fraction of its 12,000 employees.

It has been awhile since Yahoo was seen as a bellwether for the tech industry or workplace issues in general, but you wouldn’t know that from the heated reaction to Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decree that all employees must now work at the office.

Don’t get me wrong — workplace flexibility is an important issue. Changes will be wrenching for the hundreds of Yahoos who were better accommodated by the company in the past. The move may also seem like a step backward if you view tech companies as pillars of progressive workplace policies.

But keep things in perspective. Worse things can happen than being told to work in the office, especially when those offices are in places like Sunnyvale and Santa Monica.

Last month about 8 percent of the country’s workers were without jobs, including 134,026 people affected by large-scale layoffs in January. Most of those big layoffs happened in California. Yahoo isn’t there yet, but apparently Mayer thinks it’s important to have all hands on deck, communicating and collaborating in person.

From the management perspective, it’s a huge challenge to set policies that balance the needs of individuals, teams, companies and shareholders, former Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky said in a thoughtful blog post on the subject last weekend.

Sinofsky knows better than most how hard it is to find that balance at a large software company. Before he left Microsoft in December, he reinvigorated and tuned a division that’s as big – maybe bigger than — all of Yahoo. Now he’s an executive in residence at Harvard Business School and writing about management.

Sinofsky said it’s hard to argue against providing flexible work arrangements, especially when you are producing online products designed to help people work in flexible environments. But it presents a number of challenges to large organizations, including collaboration, management and accountability.

“Building and maintaining a high performance team is an incredibly difficult challenge,” he wrote. “On the one hand the team wants the very best talent from wherever and however it can find it.  On the other hand, keeping the team operating in a holistic manner over time is hard enough as it goes through ups and downs of product development.

“Whether you argue that a flexible work environment solves the talent side of the challenge or not is just part of the equation.  How to manage the challenge of maintaining the team and product over time is the other side.  As with so many product development and management challenges, knowing the challenge you face is a huge part of the work. ”

When you read in the post about how many layers of complexity he was working with, it’s no wonder he retired at 47.

I’ll bet Mayer, who is 37, will also be looking for a more flexible situation before she reaches that age.

She already has done a remarkable job of making Yahoo the center of attention again. Imagine what could happen if it ignited as much discussion about other issues.

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