Telecommuting and Building High-Performance Teams

Posted by on February 28, 2013

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s edict of no more telecommuting lit up news and social media sites this week while raising important issues for marketers and IT pros to consider when it comes to developing and optimizing their teams.

Mayer’s critics have been quick to brand her as anti-employee, anti-working mother, anti-flexibility and more. At first glance, the move comes off as fairly radical due to the established practice at Yahoo and countless other companies that allow telecommuting.

Will this be the first step in a trend that finds marketers, IT profesisonals and other with established work-at-home arrangements being called (hauled?) into the office against their will? Time will tell.

A Washington Post columnist went so far as to label the new policy a “Yahoo Move” and predicted a rollback of the“ retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict.”

I don’t think a rollback is likely, given the attention Mayer has drawn and the bold thinking behind this move. More reasoned analyses suggested Mayer is searching for something to rally the troops, unify the company and shake it out of its well-established doldrums. There may even be a layer (or two or three) of disengaged dead wood that drifts away as part of the shakeup. So be it, that argument goes.

“The situation at Yahoo! is an exception, not a new paradigm. A culture loses its execution mojo and is drifting. This is not a time for collaboration. It is time for command and control. This thing can be turned around, but not over the phone,” author Geoffrey  Moore wrote, even going so far as to say Mayer had no choice but to ban telecommuting.

Yahoo’s public comments on the matter downplayed  any notion of its policy being a broad statement  on the validity and sustainability of telecommuting, saying the policy is the right one for Yahoo at this point in time.

Fair enough.

Telecommuting is here to stay, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Yahoo’s move sparks new evaluations of where it does and doesn’t make the most sense.

For marketers and IT pros, I think the key questions are what job functions and personality types fit a telecommuting model. Lone wolves who need time to focus on their creative endeavors without sitting in an endless string of meetings continue to fit the telecommuting model. So do those with lots of self discipline and ability to juggle a variety of responsibilities effectively – and without distraction. There are clearly other functions – those who are central to a critical product, campaign launch or coding effort — who fit best in an office setting, at least during crunch times.

When I asked to telecommute nearly 20 years ago, my manager noted that the right personality type with the right work habits and level of independence can thrive in a telecommuting model. But that necessarily assumes some people can’t – and I think the same holds true today. The single most effective  group I’ve ever worked with – which was extremely lean and devoid of internal conflict — had a healthy balance of in-office (2/3) and telecommuting (1/3)  workers.  Striking that balance of personalities and work styles is one of the most important things managers must focus on to deliver performance.

The tradeoffs from less direct contact with coworkers are obvious, but I’ve always felt it’s incumbent on the telecommuter to go the extra mile in fostering collaboration and being accessible, given the flexibility they’ve been granted.

The social media hue and cry on Yahoo’s decision dumbs down the conversation  by presenting the telecommuting debate as a black-and-white, either-or option. In reality, it’s not, and Yahoo didn’t imply that it is.

Where have you seen telecommuting work and not work in marketing or IT organizations? What do companies need to steer clear of when managing workers who operate from their homes? What’s the right model in your business and industry?

Yahoo’s Mayer has made a decisive call on what her company must do – it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.