Yahoo’s edict: Why blanket bans are the easy way out

Blanket decisions will often end in tears. That was my initial thought when I read that Marissa Mayer had decided on a wholesale end to the practice of working from home for Yahoo employees.

I’m not privy to her strategy so can only assume that an element of team dysfunction resulted in the decision. It feels like the kind of issue that may have been blamed for a negative profit and loss statement. Maybe a business disaster resulted from miscommunication in teams who worked from home, for example.

It’s all-too common for a manager to address a specific issue by enforcing a blanket policy change. I once worked for a CEO who became obsessed with a few team members’ tardiness. Instead of addressing the issue directly with them, he took (in my view) the easy way out by issuing an email missive that accused the entire business of tardiness, followed by a warning that it wouldn’t be tolerated. This method of management served to insult the team members who delivered hours of service above and beyond, and the tardy workers continued to arrive later than the CEO could bear. Morale was shattered.

Similarly, in a former leadership role, I was driven to plead with the managing director to overturn his decision to implement a clock-in system. We were leading a business of creative people who worked irregular hours. It bothered him that the entire fashion department of a magazine could be missing for sections of a day and his blood would boil if it was the entire day. He implemented the system without consultation – and without considering the consequences. In a business where team members have early starts and very late finishes, and where it’s desirable for the business that staff attend after-hours client events, the old clock-in, clock-out eight hours per day won’t just end in tears, it will also cost the business in overtime salaries.

Again, I am not privy to the reason behind Mayer’s decision that has shocked many, particularly in the digital world. If the working from home policy has been abused or has in some way created a business issue, then she was right to reconsider it. As the CEO, business results are her priority, particularly given the organisation’s state that she inherited.

But surely Yahoo is a complex organisation that requires a different strategy for each area of the business. I am all for flexible working arrangements, and always have been as long as it suits the team dynamic and type of role. There are some jobs that should never be done from home and others that could more effectively be achieved that way. If I have a lot of reports to write I can power through them without distraction if I work from home for a day. But it would be impossible for me to be an effective leader if I worked from home most days. I use the judgement that my decades of management experience have taught me.

So in my judgement Mayer is right to change the conditions that may be creating a problem but also wrong to invoke a company-wide policy that changes a positive arrangement for everyone. In doing so, she may in fact be creating a bigger business problem than she has sought to fix.

This piece first appeared on LeadingCompany’s sister site, Women’s Agenda.

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