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Like Bees to Honey: Yahoo! and the Future of Mobile Work

Photo credit: Gensler

Yahoo!’s decision to cancel its mobile work policy and require all employees to keep hours at a company office hit the news cycle like a ton of bricks. How could a brand that is at the forefront of developing the technologies which enable mobile work deprive its workforce of this option? On the surface, Yahoo!’s policy may seem somewhat incongruous with the products it offers, but it’s actually very much in sync with a trend I’ve seen developing in the tech world: the desire to get employees back to the office and under one roof.

Think of the mobile work option like a giant pendulum. When expanded Internet access and the prevalence of portable electronic devices became standard, the pendulum swung towards allowing employees to work from wherever they chose to do so. The tech sector was one of the first industries to adopt and encourage alternative workstyles, like mobile work, as strategic tools. A scarcity of talent pushed then-new companies such as Yahoo! and Google to offer prospective employees telework, mobility and activity based settings. These strategies boosted recruitment and aided real estate and workplace strategy.

Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Tech companies such as Yahoo! and Nokia are bringing their workers back to the office rather than pushing them to work wherever they feel. I have a few thoughts on this development and the ramifications it holds for workplace design…

  • Telework and mobility has its advantages. It has indeed allowed more work to get accomplished with fewer hours behind the desk. Certainly sales forces realize better productivity when they are in front of their customer rather than sitting at a workstation.

  • So if Yahoo! and similar companies want their employees to come back home, they must create a workplace that their employees WANT to come to. The workplace is no longer about warehousing people, but creating an environment that bring talent together to build culture, connect and deliver great ideas. If the workplace isn’t working for the employees, they will look to go elsewhere.

  • Like bees to honey, people go where they feel good. There’s a reason people hang out at Starbucks, sit in a park or want to work on their sofa. Organizations that provide spaces that encourage healthy focus work, enhance collaboration, speed learning and provide meaningful social connections can’t keep their employees away. Workers today don’t dislike offices, but too many offices don’t provide the amenities that coffeehouses, parks, and other communal spaces do.

  • One policy change does not make a trend, but Yahoo!’s recent HR memo should be seen as the first in a movement to bring people back together to the workplace. The CEO’s demand for “all hands on deck” is easy to understand when you look at stock price. Yahoo! is trading at $20 share, when their competitor, Google is trading at $788. The Yahoo! employees should be happy there is a desk waiting for them.

If your work environment isn’t attracting your employees, moving the needle towards your vision, values, strategies and goals you probably SHOULD send your employees home to work.

What will really be the success factor for Yahoo!’s bold move is less the policy change and more the place changes that they need to make. How are they going to change their work environment for the sudden influx of so many people? And most importantly, how are they going to provide the kinds of settings that I bet their people were looking for in non-office locations?

“I really need to get work done so I’m going to work from home tomorrow” is a phrase I hear all the time from my clients – about themselves and their colleagues. Yet not many companies are actively strategizing to make their place of work where “real” work gets done.

Collaboration, as Yahoo! asserts, is critical to innovation. But so is individual work. Many companies have embraced mobility less for work/life balance or to help people work effectively, but as an opportunity to drive down real estate costs: putting more people in less space and getting rid of critical workplace elements that help people focus when they need to. And then people embrace mobility for their own purposes, turning to non-work locations for privacy, quiet, and other things that let them focus. And then the workplace is empty. And so on and so on.

Yahoo!’s making their move for business reasons that matter to them and so it’s not right or wrong at this point. I'd suggest that they follow up on their bold move with another one: rather than simply make your employees come in to work, make the workplace work better for your people and they will follow…like bees to honey.

Jim brings recognized experience in workplace strategy, project management, design, and implementation. He also has extensive knowledge of alternative office concepts such as hoteling and other high performance workplace solutions. He has provided strategic master planning, resource development and allocation, quality assurance, and standards development and maintenance for a wide range of clients. Contact him at jim_williamson@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (7)

Good blog and of cause the Yahoo decision turns things around related to the discussions that have been ongoing around mobility. I agree that all workplace strategies have to be aligned with the business strategy and through that everything needs to support the individual in the activiites that they perform. However when it comes to mobility I feel that it has been one sided and I have been thinking for a long time that there are two types of mobility.
One that I would call natural mobility meaning that people are going to be at meetings internal or external they are going to be on vacation etc etc and I think from a life/work balance they should be able to have a choice from where to work however knowing that the office is the most effective place to work.
The other type of mobility I have not been able to come up with a good name for the best I can think of is resource related mobility. In the future there will be competition for top talent with many reports showing a demand being higher than the supply. This will mean that recruitment of key resources will not be able to be done locally and thus will need home working or local hubs.
It will be interesting to see how other companies follow and what this actually means for space requirements.
03.1.2013 | Unregistered CommenterStaffan André
Staffan -
Well stated - I completely agree that there are different types of mobility. Unfortunately many thought mobility was the answer to all that challenged our workplaces - work/life balance, real estate savings, being home for the cable man...as with most things solutions are way more complex than simply sending people home to work. But I guess thats why there are workplace strategists and designers to help address the growing complexities! Im excited that that the debate is now mainstreaming so media isnt just pushing mobility and virtual work as the silver bullet that many hoped it was.
03.1.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Williamson
This is great Jim, I just wish we would have know this before we went in for our Yahoo HQ MOJO interview three weeks ago. Might have changed our whole presentation and certainly would not have presented mobility ideas!

03.1.2013 | Unregistered Commenterdoug wittnebel

I keep thinking we've made great progress around design and the purpose of the office. I cringe when companies like Yahoo use policy rather than the design of place to draw people in meaningful connection with each other and the purpose of their work. Thanks for these reflections!
03.1.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Meredith
And in today's news, now Best Buy has joined the "back to work" movement!
03.6.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Williamson
Good blog! In social service, a so-called people business, I find that our office spaces are one of the most crass to work and receive clients in. Perhaps due to limited budgets. In addition, ironically for a people business, we definitely don't think of our employees work/life balance. The social service field demands long hours, is low paying and an increasingly less attractive environment to work in. I know for certain our employees would be more motivated if they came to a work location that is warm, supporting and encourages positive productivity. For instance, as a cost saving strategy, one agency cut back on water coolers in its office locations. Just this seemingly minor change caused great disgruntlement among the staff. With what seems like a penny pinching approach, some employees already left for greener pastures.

So I agree - while Yahoo! and others demand more of a 'presence' from its employees, thought must be given to what can be done to create a motivating work space. One that would stimulate the creative mind towards strong productivity. And I imagine changes don't have to be very costly, as seemingly minor tweaks can make a major difference.
03.7.2013 | Unregistered CommenterM. A.
It has recently emerged that Yahoo! only has around 200 employees who work away from the office full time, and that the change in policy was aimed primarily at them, not the thousands of others who occasionally work from home. Their notorious HR memo does leave the door open for the exercise of personal judgment with regard to work location.

So I think we have to look deeper at what is happening here. The common factor between Yahoo! and Best Buy is that both are struggling and in turnaround mode. If the ship is sinking, "all hands on deck!" seems like a perfectly reasonable request. The lesson is that companies should not embrace mobile working solely to reduce office space cost. For mobility to have a postive impact, a company's culture needs to be strong and cohesive to begin with. If the culture is distressed, having people leave the sinking ship is about the worst thing to do that I can think of!

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