Sunday, March 17, 2013

Mrs. Mayer's Major Misstep

I can't help feeling that a lot of us have had some rather wild expectations from the 21st century. We watched "Back to the Future" in our teenage years and fantasized about flying garbage-powered cars. We read Asimov and fantasized about having robots throw out our trash while we colonize other planets. We watched Star Trek and the idea of a post-scarcity society filled us with hopes and dreams.

The reality has yet to catch up with science fiction, but we did get to see quite a few technological advances that were nothing short of amazing. Unfortunately, it seems we expected to see the society change for the better at an equal pace as technology and that's why we keep getting disappointed on a regular basis.

Take telecommuting, for example. The very idea that you can be in a large team doing a complicated job and contribute your part from home would have been considered fantastic when I was a kid. Indeed, it was a fantasy back then: Asimov's novel "The Naked Sun" describes a society where almost every social interaction is done via holographic telepresence. Since then, the availability of telecommuting as an option has improved many lives and quite often resulted in a net gain for everyone involved.

Then came Marissa Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo. Unsurprisingly, the initial reactions across our virtual global world were largely those of outraged criticism. A furious debate sprung up between those who condemn her move as oppressive and those who see in it a logical necessity for Yahoo as a company to catch up with the competition. More than two weeks later, the discussion has slowed down fractionally, but it's far from stopping, as new articles and posts keep popping up all over.

Although much has been written about benefits and drawbacks of working from home and about whether Marissa's strategy is good or bad for Yahoo, that's not really the crux of this debate. Much like the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was just a pretext for World War I, but not the real reason for it, the outrage about Mrs. Mayer's decision stems from its potential effects on the society at large.

It's amazing how many people still get this wrong. For example, Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire writes that we should chill out, because Marissa Mayer's memo is not about us:
But when Mayer declares an end to working from home, it does not in fact put an end to working from home elsewhere. Which is a relief because, if we've learned anything, some people really don't want to work in an office all the time.
It sounds reasonable on the face of it, but it's either downright disingenuous or just misguided optimism, depending on how generous you feel when you read it.

If you really think Marissa Mayer's decision is only about Yahoo, then you're living a sheltered life. Regardless of its position in the Silicon Valley's pecking order, Yahoo is still a large, prominent company and, as such, it can and does influence the society at large. Right off the bat, there were places where Mayer's move was taken as a sign that working from home should be banned.

Take, for example, this article from The Economic Times. Here's a choice quote:
"Flexitime is a utopian concept that is not going to help anyone," says K Ramkumar, Executive Director, ICICI Bank. "Whatever is not natural to the market and commerce, will not work. Customer is the king."
You might doubt the quality of the source, but it does not matter whether Mr. Ramkumar really said that or not. What matters is that there are numerous companies and managers who think like that and who must have been elated by the implicit validation they received from Mrs. Mayer's decision.

Here in Chile, the prevalent management style has been given a colorful name: "The Ranch Owner". What that means, in short, is that a lot of managers here expect their commands to be taken as divine law. For them, the topic of employees' happiness can be summed up with "I pay you to work. Whether you're happy or not is your problem."

What I'm driving at is that high-profile decisions in a company like Yahoo have an effect on much more than the company itself. The ripple effects of those decisions can affect a large part of the world.

To mitigate the impact of her decision, all Marissa Mayer had to do was make her telecommuting policy a bit more moderate: allow working from home on a case-to-case basis and, perhaps, choose a better wording that acknowledges telecommuting as an option that can enhance the quality of people's lives in general.

Instead, she's being defended and even praised for making a tough, controversial choice for the good of her company. The effects of her decision are being swept under the carpet of "fostering innovation", by people like Rebecca Cooper in her article for Washington Business Journal:
If she thinks bringing all her workers together in one place to innovate is the way to rebuild the brand, then I think we should let her try. I'm all for companies trusting their employees and giving them the ability to perform anytime and anywhere they can flourish. But I also think we shouldn't react so quickly to condemn this CEO for trying some old-fashioned togetherness to reboot Yahoo.
Even more chilling are the stories that praise her for "basing her decision on data". There's nothing wrong with consulting VPN logs and finding out that a lot of people are abusing their telecommuting privileges. Getting from there to outright banning telecommuting with no case-to-case considerations has nothing to do with data. Promoting the idea that you can make any decision infallible given enough data is downright irresponsible, especially when supported by flawed arguments such as this one:
Once, a Google designer quit the company in a huff because he was tired of how Mayer, in charge of how homepage looked, would choose design elements like color or font not based on taste, but raw data.

For every design variable, she looked at how users interacted with Google with one design — and then the other.

If the data showed users were using faster one way instead of the other, that particular design choice won out.

It's hard to argue that Mayer's process didn't work for Google. It was not the first search engine on the market, but it's just about the only one anybody uses now.
Conflating Google's success as a search engine with Mayer's decision making process about Google home page design is naive, but it takes a whole new level of self-delusion to use that as an argument to blow Mayer's analysis of VPN logs out of proportion and defend her decision as "data-driven".

Big companies nowadays parade their social responsibility initiatives and milk them for all they're worth. Yet when it comes to having a care about how your words might influence the lives of workers across the planet, many people seem to think it's not such a big deal.

After all, why should we care about the power of words? "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me." If that's what you subscribe to, then maybe you should reconsider.


Danilo Araya said...

Totally agree.
It's a case by case thing.

In my company it's "a benefit" you can obtain with "good behavior".

Some people don't like to work at home just because they know they have too much distraction.
My case... even with 4 kids at home... I built a dreaming home office and problem solved :-)

And something more to add.
All people in my company consider this benefit as the super-ultra-mega good reason to don't leave the company... something to think about.

segFault said...

I always did more work, not less, than when I was in the office, when working from home.

Stupid not to.