Skip to main content

CEO right: Yahoo workers must show up

By Raymond Fisman, Special to CNN
March 2, 2013 -- Updated 0612 GMT (1412 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Raymond Fisman: Marissa Mayer needs to revive Yahoo, and face time at the office is key
  • Fisman: Granted, this goes against Utopian vision of everyone working from cafes
  • Fisman: In-person work means innovations, avoids misunderstood directives
  • He says more jobs will get done and it'll encourage those who work in a half-empty office

Editor's note: Raymond Fisman is the Lambert Family professor of social enterprise at the Columbia Business School. He is the co-author, with Tim Sullivan, of "The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office."

(CNN) -- When Yahoo's relatively new CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that workers would be required to show up at the office rather than work remotely, the immediate backlash from outsiders was mostly on the side of the angry Yahoo employees who were losing the comfort and convenience of telecommuting. Inside the company, reactions were mixed.

It struck a deep chord, contrary as it was to the techno-utopian impulse that has helped define Silicon Valley: the idea that someday soon we'll all be working in coffee shops or at kitchen tables, with broadband connections replacing in-person interactions.

Mayer may have been extreme in her demands for face time at the office, but it's the right call for a leader who is working to turn around one of the Internet's laggards.

Raymond Fisman
Raymond Fisman

First, let's consider what's at stake for the company and what Mayer is hoping to accomplish. Yahoo is famous for having bungled its position as a one-time Internet leader. Mayer was brought on specifically to revitalize the benighted company after the departure of Jerry Yang; the firing of Carol Bartz, and the departures of another CEO who inflated his resume and an interim director. All the while, Yahoo has been a company in search of a direction.

What does the end of telecommuting have to do with giving the company a sound footing? The reasons go well beyond the obvious issue of reining in slackers who have taken advantage of Yahoo's reportedly lax monitoring of work done from home.

Talk Back: Is Yahoo wrong to end telecommuting?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Jackie Reses, Yahoo's head of human relations, has it exactly right in the memo she wrote to employees about the policy: Personal interaction is still the most effective way of conveying a company's direction, and keeping tabs on what different parts of the organization are up to. And that's what Mayer has to do with all of Yahoo's 11,500 employees to succeed.

What do in-person meetings accomplish that e-mail can't? Part of the answer lies in time use surveys of CEOs that go back nearly 40 years.

Management scholar Henry Mintzberg was among the first to track how top managers spend their time in the early 1970s. Much to his surprise, he found that around 80% of their time was spent in face-to-face meetings; the subjects of his study had few stretches of more than 10 minutes at a time to themselves.

More recent time use studies by researchers at Harvard, the London School of Economics and Columbia have found that little has changed. Despite the IT revolution, business leaders still spend 80% of their time in face-to-face meetings.

Does telecommuting hurt companies?
Why the interest in Yahoo CEO?

The reason is that there's only so much that one can glean from a written report or a spreadsheet. To cut through the hidden agendas, and office politics, most of the time you need to look someone in the eye and ask them, "Really? How exactly would that work?" It is this probing and questioning that allows effective managers to gather the scraps of information needed to understand what's really going on.

Similarly, all the way down the organizational chart, person-to-person interactions are crucial to ensure that an organization's change of direction isn't misrepresented or garbled in its retelling.

The bland proclamations made in reports and e-mails are given clearer meaning through the way they're communicated in the "high fidelity" that only personal interaction will allow. In-person meetings can also help teams avoid misunderstandings: As one of our friends who runs a virtual workplace puts it, with e-mail exchanges alone, everyone starts to get a bit paranoid.

Finally, the Yahoo memo notes that it's hard to innovate via e-mail exchanges or the occasional agenda-filled meeting. New ideas spring up through chance encounters in the cafeteria line and impromptu office meetings. It's an assertion that's backed up by academic research highlighting the importance of physical proximity in driving scientific progress.

Work at home? Share productivity tips

Yet there are rarely benefits without cost. Lots of tasks are easily managed from a distance. A large number of the affected Yahoo employees are customer-service representatives who aren't going to be driving innovation at the company anyway.

In one study of telecommuting at a Chinese online travel agency, customer-service reps were both happier and more productive when working from home -- probably Yahoo service reps aren't any different from their Chinese counterparts in this regard. And every Yahoo employee surely has some aspects of their jobs that could be done just as well at the kitchen table as in an office cubicle.

But it's hard to create a norm of "physically together" if the office is always half-empty. And once it becomes that way, the half that have been showing up will be less and less inclined to bother. Finally, such a shocking and provocative directive will most certainly have the effect of imbuing the organization with the sense of urgency it needs to get the job done.

Will Yahoo employees come around to appreciating the change? Not necessarily the ones that liked to sleep in or work on a startup on Yahoo's dime, but it may be welcomed by the ones already showing up. Will it be damaging to morale? Possibly, though it may help Yahoo employees to remember that, if they're successful, the change is likely to be temporary.

But the job of the CEO isn't to maximize worker happiness. It's to make sure they get their jobs done. And in driving change at Yahoo, Mayer thinks they need to show up at the office.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Raymond Fisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT