Talking tech since 2003

The Internet is abuzz with criticism of Yahoo’s new telecommuting policy, handed down by CEO Marissa Mayer and announced through memos circulated inside the company. The policy is simple — there is no more telecommuting for Yahoo employees. Those who work remotely must start working in Yahoo’s offices by June 1 or find another job.

Those who pay attention to larger tech companies with trust-based telecommuting policies call this move a huge mistake. Google doesn’t place any restrictions on telecommuting, asking Googlers to use their best judgment. Netflix is very easy-going on the subject, maintaining the position that it cares more about productivity than it does desk time. Other large companies like Microsoft, HP and Cisco, and even smaller ones like Foursquare and Airbnb are open to telecommuting employees. When you look at a list like that, the Yahoo stance seems out of date and out of place.

Yahoo's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Ca.
Yahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, Ca.

And it might be, if Yahoo wasn’t in need of a total cultural reboot. But it is, and while free iPhones and free lunches are one pillar of the new Marissa Mayer regime, another is making sure Yahoo employs people who are passionate about the company and aren’t just there (or not there, if working remotely) to collect paychecks. Yahoo needs employees who want to live, breathe and evangelize Yahoo. Employees who bleed the trademark purple. Jerry Yang called them “Yahoos.” Marissa Mayer can call them whatever she wants, but she needs them and she knows it.

The truth is, working at Yahoo doesn’t carry the same prestige as it did back in the 90s and early 2000s. Sure, Mayer’s arrival has helped to bring back a little bit of it, but not all of it. And employees don’t seem to hold the company as part of their identities the way many Googlers do. A lot of that has to do with the absence of a clear vision over the past decade, mixed with several games of CEO musical chairs and the general bloat of being a worldwide Internet company with employees spread out all over the place. The lack of prestige comes from the failure to put out amazing products, which comes from a lack of leadership and identity.

Most companies that make telecommuting work are fine in the identity department. Yahoo isn’t there yet. The company needs employees in Sunnyvale, walking the halls, eating lunch with colleagues, brainstorming on whiteboards, gathering around monitors — basically, doing the things you’d see a small startup doing in companies that emphasize collaboration and comradery. Only then can the company’s new identity really begin to take shape. That’s why the telecommuting policy makes sense to me. It isn’t as much a throwback to cubicle-crammed Corporate America as it is a chance to foster a startup mentality inside Yahoo when it is desperately needed.

Yes, the change will hurt some people. Yes, the lack of telecommuting will keep some potential employees away from Yahoo. But Yahoo doesn’t want those people. It wants people who will come into the office and be so engaged with their coworkers and so focused on building awesome products that they’ll forget to leave at 5PM on the dot. Marissa Mayer, having been one of the earliest Google employees, knows a thing or two about being in that type of culture. Building it doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s certainly tougher to do in a storied company that has undergone a lot of turmoil and a lot of change, but it’s a necessary process that Yahoo has to go through if it hopes to survive.

Offering standard Silicon Valley perks was just the first step, and the new telecommuting policy is just another, but it certainly won’t be the last. Yahoo will likely do a lot more weeding in its quest to change its culture, develop an identity and become more lean. It’s what any smart company would do in a similar situation, and it shows that Marissa Mayer is not afraid to make the tough decisions.

It’s not a blow to the telecommuting movement, or a sign that Yahoo doesn’t get it. It’s the right decision for Yahoo at a crucial time in its existence. It’s necessary. And it might be what gets Yahoo headed in the right direction again.

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