Skip to main content

CEO right: Yahoo workers must show up

By Raymond Fisman, Special to CNN
updated 1:12 AM EST, Sat March 2, 2013
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT