Don't Underestimate Mayer's Huge Gamble at Yahoo!


Marissa Mayer's appointment as Yahoo!'s new CEO looked promising given her past stint at rival powerhouse Google. However, the recent controversy concerning Mayer's decision to metaphorically chain Yahooligans to their office desks sounds as un-Googley as it gets. Investors should be aware it could have an adverse effect on the inner workings of the company.

Banning working from home sounds as non-progressive as ideas come, and I don't believe it will increase productivity at all. Great companies have happy employees, and this "one-size-fits-all" approach should worry Yahoo! shareholders.

Different strokes for different folks
Underlining the reality disconnect of this move is the fact that there's no real evidence that working from home causes lost productivity at all . Some individuals really do get more work done in solo settings. Endless in-person meetings that are supposed to encourage "communication and collaboration" as Mayer claims also simply end up wasting time in many cases.

Compelling amounts of research show in-person brainstorming sessions actually don't work. Many people don't feel creative in a group setting, and most prefer to feel "right" and go along with the gang more than they like "standing out" with a truly interesting idea. A morning shower is either just as good or a better place to come up with innovative ideas than a conference room and white board.

Jonah Lehrer pointed to psychologist Keith Sawyer's summation in a New Yorker article last year: "Decades of research has consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."

Leaders need to realize that people function differently -- to say that there are differences between how extroverts and introverts function is an understatement, for example. There simply won't be a uniform heightened "productivity" defined by warm bodies in office chairs, and better productivity and ideas garnered this way is a pleasant myth that assumes everyone is the same, not different.

Old-school toxic
Yahoo! certainly could be a fertile ground for workplace negativity, too. For example, survivor guilt can cast one heck of a pall over a company. About this time last year, Yahoo! announced plans to cut 2,000 jobs from its payroll under Mayer's predecessor Scott Thompson. That was Yahoo!'s sixth swing at mass layoffs in just four years' time. Keeping the best workers under such circumstances already looked pretty dicey.

My Foolish colleague Sam Cicotello is right to point out that if a company's culture is a positive one, employees won't dread the idea of coming into work in the first place. If managements have to mandate such policies, something's wrong.

So yes, maybe Yahoo!'s culture is so broken that many workers have been avoiding a daily dose of toxic environment. In fact, part of the emerging pro-Mayer argument is that many Yahoo! employees were taking advantage of the perk to do as little work as possible.

Can Mayer's blanket mandate to coax more face time and productivity out of workers in this manner possibly help morale? I highly doubt it.

In interesting and related news, Best Buy has just decided to end its once-innovative Results Oriented Work Environment program, or ROWE, on the heels of the Yahoo! announcement. At one time, ROWE was one of the reasons I believed in Best Buy -- the retailer's management could think differently and completely out of the "big box." I now think Best Buy is a disastrous stock, and one to avoid, and the ROWE decision is just one more reason.

Maybe Mayer's decision has galvanized other companies like Best Buy to take control of their workforces in a similar way, but really, I'm more inclined to believe these are companies whose workers lost their passion a long time ago. That's never a good sign..

More positive ways to shake up the status quo
On the face of it, Mayer's high-profile controversial decision looks terrible. When Mayer talked about heightening "communication," she was on the right track, but to force it by taking away flexibility is where she lost the plot.

A better way to address real issues is to come up with real performance goals for work-from-home employees and hold them to it. Get rid of workers who truly are taking advantage of a good thing instead of helping the company move forward. Cracking the whip with across-the-board mandates is hardly productive.

Thinking differently and thinking forward builds the best companies. Mayer may have been left with a mess on her hands, but shareholders should be mighty concerned that this blanket statement on the efficiency and productivity of remote workers will actually make the company less competitive.

Meanwhile, Mayer had better have a positive and dedicated workforce to take on her former employer Google and other companies in key areas like Yahoo! search, an area she indicated is first priority in January. That's an aggressive plan and a formidable opponent; a demoralized workforce isn't a motivated one, so hopefully she's got major tricks up her sleeve to make all this new office face time a value-creating initiative.

We'll see how Mayer's leadership works out for Yahoo!'s long-term health, but I doubt this decision will help matters in the least. Workers are the lifeblood of a company, and when they're not motivated for the fight to return to health, it's hard to recover.

The brick-and-mortar versus e-commerce battle wages on, with Best Buy caught in the middle. After what might have been its most tumultuous year in history, there are now even more unanswered questions about the future for the big-box electronics retailer. How will new leadership perform? Will old leadership take the company private? Will a smaller store format work out for both the company and its brave investors? Should you be one such brave investor? To help answer all these questions, The Motley Fool has released a new premium research report detailing the opportunities -- and the risks -- in store for Best Buy. Simply click here now to claim your comprehensive report today.

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