The Flex-Work Debate: Yahoo’s CEO Misses the Real “Elephant in the Room”

“People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” — Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO

Marissa Mayer maintained a long and remarkable silence in the face of unrelenting criticism of Yahoo’s mid-February “ban on telecommuting.” She let a clumsy HR memo stand in for her views.

Late last week, as gun legislation and the Boston manhunt blanketed the news, Mayer chose to appear at a long-scheduled Great Place to Work gathering of HR professionals and executives in Los Angeles.

Rather than cancel and avoid the inevitable issue, according to news report she came armed with well-prepared lines and graphic support. According to CNN Money, mid-speech she said:

“I need to talk about the elephant in the room.” Immediately an image of a purple elephant, with large while letters “WFH” (work from home) painted on its side, appeared on projection screens in the hotel auditorium.

She repeated a key phrase the company used in a statement it released after the memo was leaked: “It’s not what’s right for Yahoo right now,” and added, “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative…”

Mayer defended her decision by first acknowledging that “people are more productive when they’re alone,” and then stressed, “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” The shift in policy affects roughly 200 of Yahoo’s 12,000 employees.”

Old ways of managing

I’m sure she sensed that the crowd – or any crowd – was eagerly awaiting her comments on The Great Telecommuting Controversy her actions had unleashed. Sadly, she displayed a purple elephant, but presented a white one. (A “white elephant” is defined as a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost  — particularly cost of upkeep — is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.)

What Marissa Mayer brought to her decision and discussion seems to be a simple and seemingly valid (and valuable) commodity: old ways of managing, including the penchant for empty generalizations.

The old ways have proven successful for many enterprises over decades – and perhaps they will turn Yahoo around. Certainly one does not have to expect a robust defense of telecommuting from someone who was not schooled in it (at Google), does not seem to practice it personally, and saw it as contributing to the mess she inherited.

But a little subtle and far-sighted thinking from a celebrated and well-compensated CEO does not seem too much to ask. Now and in the future, an observer as data-driven as Mayer is reputed to be should recognize a simple fact: Life, work, performance, productivity, engagement, and resilience in a diverse society and workforce demand customization, not uniformity; fluidity, not rigidity; and collaborative management rather than executive-inspired micro-management.

Yes — it all depends

Slightly modifying the words of the memo that animated tens of thousands of opinions, Yahoo’s CEO tossed into the national dialogue this thought worthy of a fortune cookie:

“People are more productive when they’re alone … but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

If this were a question, the answers would be: “yes” and “yes” and “no” and “no,” because, IT ALL DEPENDS.

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Serious management demands careful and instructive analysis. Such generalizations as these can have little place in the day-to-day assessments of real managers. Different people, different tasks, different days, different business pressures and cycles – all require discretion in where, when, and how a given person best accomplishes a given piece of work.

Yes, it all depends.

Collaborative scheduling, grounded in reality

Optimizing business outcomes and employee engagement is an ongoing process that demands the actual managing of differences. In our flexibility work with clients, we argue that what people need is not rigid programs and empty generalizations, but collaborative scheduling grounded in reality and managers and employees who have the skills to monitor and adjust to the work process that engulfs them – wherever it is best done.

It is said that elephants never forget. Happily we are humans, not pachyderms. Hopefully we will all apply her rather odd phrase – “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative” – to mean that she does not recommend her course to others. And we will forget this distracting episode.

On that encouraging note we can wish Marissa Mayer well in rebuilding Yahoo, and undertake a future in which thoughtful collaborative scheduling replaces the generalizations underlying flexibility programs or their abrupt cancellations.

This was originally published on Rupert & Company’s The Co Scheduler.

Paul Rupert has collaborated with colleagues, clients and business leaders to embed flexibility in the workplace for the past 40 years. His consulting firm, Washington, DC-based Rupert & Company, has provided dozens of major employers with innovative strategies, training and online tools to build the flexibility the market will bear. Paul has played a leading role in developing flexibility systems in companies ranging from Aetna and AOL to Wal-Mart and Xerox, and is the architect of the Co Scheduling approach. Contact him at


8 Comments on “The Flex-Work Debate: Yahoo’s CEO Misses the Real “Elephant in the Room”

  1. Paul, I believe your comments are over generalizations that donot add to the discussion. In a corporation we have all experienced managers who do not manage well and employees who will not take responsibility for their own behaviors and you end up with what Yahoo appeared to have: a management situation that ran a muck. For the health of the organization I believe Marissa did the right thing. Kill the elephant and then in time if you need to reinstate the work at home practice, do it with new “rules” and “conditions.” It saves dragging out the misery and drama. Working from home did not work for Ron Johnson and his “gang” at J C Penney either.

    1. Tom, I agree with what companies all tell us: that the skills and traits of their managers and employees are diverse, mixed, etc. For that reason I have always found it hard to reach broad conclusions such as people working alone are more productive or people in the same room are more collaborative. Offering blanket support to entitled flexible work programs seems no more effective to me than suddenly terminating all the participants. I’ve worked with dozens of major companies for two decades who seek to do programs with the right “rules” and “conditions.” I have concluded that the best outcomes occur with skilled, collaborative scheduling between well-trained managers and employees. Cheaper, easier conditions will inevitably yield less valuable outcomes.

    2. Tom, I understand your point of view. But thought Ms. Mayer’s generalizations reflected an age-old problem in large organizations: the “everyone is the same and should be treated the same” that dominated organizational thinking before the advent of notions like “diversity” and “flexibility” came onto the scene. I know and will no doubt hear of badly implemented flex and diversity programs. And I think that is often the problem: programs that work off of and promote generalizations. People who work at home are productive/more productive/exceptionally productive. People in the office are terribly/unbelievably/smashingly collaborative. Really? Gross generalizations are just that. What today and tomorrrow’s worforce needs is well-trained and collaborative managers and employees who know how to get the work done — and to innovate, collaborate and execute in the best way and place to do so.

  2. I agree with Tom. In my opinion I cannot believe the hoop-la made over her decision to rein in telecommuting for now. Who are we to criticize her? We aren’t there.
    Paul I’m afraid you are making generalizations — not Tom. She’s trying to turn this company around. Hey! Even Google where she came from does not have much telecommuting —- and it is certainly not across the board like Yahoo.
    And Paul, Marissa is not saying everyone’s alike. She is just trying to get a handle on what’s going on and she can’t do it with half of the workforce at home. She has not said she will not allow telecommuting ever — just for now. I have other people — including Yahoo former employees — that employees were running amok

  3. Paul – I agree with your observations. Marissa is to be commended for taking a stand she believes in and sticking with it, despite the controversy surrounding that decision. What she, and most of the crowd that weighed in on the subject, seems to be missing is the premise that for collaboration/innovation to occur it must be on a face to face basis. Not!

    Social Media is called Social Media for a reason. The Millennials, who will eventually rule the workplace, have been collaborating electronically for most of their life. They are perfectly comfortable with virtual technology, and engage with it on a daily basis. The real answer is not to shut it down; it’s facilitating the maximization of those vehicles in a business context so current and future Yahoo’s can use them just as they probably do today.

    I’m sure the Yahoo CEO is one smart lady, and I’m really surprised that she is missing a really important trick: the advent of Social Media is changing the way we experience life. Jumping on that train and making it work for you seems like a pretty smart thing to do.

    1. John has touched on a critical point in all this. At root we are talking about social evolution — relentless change in the way we work. The outputs, the work process, the technology, dual and single-earner families, the ascendancy of the millennials all make this a challenging and intriguing time to get work done. In my earlier TLNT posts on all this, I reserved judgment on Mayer as manager and recognized the perilous state of Yahoo. I understood the “all hands on deck” order in a listing ship.
      I was responding to what she said last week to an assembly of influentiual executives who can directly affect the work lives of tens of thousands of people. That gathering would have benefitted from close analysis, not platitudes which did not explain her actions or sketch a future that her company;s technology might play a role in.

  4. I stand by what I said. Marissa said: “It’s not what’s right for Yahoo right now,” and added, “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative…” She’s not discounting the greater use of social media today by Gen Y. She’s saying it’s not right for Yahoo NOW. She doesn’t owe anyone any explanation about what has to change for her to give telecommuting the OK again. I see no reason for HR to insist on knowing this.

    Marissa also said: “people are more productive when they’re alone,” and then stressed, “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” She’s entitled to her opinion. We all are. I have read that other well-known HR people believe the same.
    I can’t say this enough. She is trying to understand what makes Yahoo tick/not tick. She’s trying to get her arms around what has worked/not worked. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t “get” social media. It is sad that so many people are “jumping” on her believing she doesn’t “get it”.

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