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Yahoo’s Perplexing Remote Workers Decision (lockedowndesign.com)
18 points by johnjlocke on Feb 24, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

I applaud Mayer's decision, because I loathe collaborating with remotes at my workplace. I can't just walk to a remote's office to ask them a question. I can't do in-person code reviews. In meetings, remotes miss out on all the natural human interactions and cues, so they constantly interrupt someone who is about to speak. Remotes can't talk to a specific person, so we all have to stop talking when any of them talk. Technical issues with the software are a constant annoyance, and slow all of us down. And God help us if there's more than one remote in a meeting: they talk over each other all the time.

I view remotes as a drain on the workplace and on my productivity, and I resent them for it. I've made the choice to live near my company's HQ, and make that damn commute every day, so that my workplace gets the best of me. Remotes have not, and I wonder if they get paid the same as me while they sit at home, and I view them as selfish.

The prospect of not having to tolerate remotes actually perks my interest in working at Yahoo.

Sounds like you have had some poor experiences with it. I wonder if all your at office experiences have been expedient and not slowed down in any way or is there some bias there? Sounds also like there is some grudging that you have to commute...

The question is, if a company is able to pull off 'remotes' do you think this is a competitive advantage since coordinating this seems to be so hard for some companies? Is it a survival mechanism for companies that might not otherwise be able to happen locally?

Is a company like 37signals, stackoverflow early or others possible in an office or did they succeed longer because they were remote? How has all the research been done across the world and across oceans? What about multiple offices, does remote communication suck that way as well? Is everything done in your office or are there some outsourced parts?

Remote skills and virtual communication are a requirement today, companies unable to do this are missing out on competitive advantages. Companies that can perform well remotely also look at external factors more I have found, offices get an internal sickness. I think a mix is probably best but a company must be able to operate remote I believe today. Companies that can't write/read/coordinate enough to remote probably can't coordinate customer communication as well either (who are all remote in many cases), it is an organization culture thing. In the end how many times and people at your office do you actually need to meet up with on a daily basis? Driving 1 hour both ways for 15 minutes of face time sometimes.

All this means for Yahoo is they are going to miss out on workers and engineers located outside of SF or a 'remote' office, the bet is being in the same place will beat out the pool of developers farther than 100 miles from a Yahoo office. And it sucks when that good engineer or employee has to move that you've invested in and knows or built successful products in the office...

> Sounds also like there is some grudging that you have to commute...

Not the OP, but what I can say from my own experience is that people who work remotely are indeed seen by their co-workers as being "privileged" or "above the rest" etc. This might very well be an exaggeration, but the affect on morale and team-spirit is certainly there, especially during bad times.

To put it another way, let's say you just got into the office after a dreadful one-hour commute (by car, metro, doesn't really matter, we all experienced them), ready to drink your coffee when suddenly the server is down, or a crazy client is yelling on the phone at your sales-people who in turn yell at you, the IT dept. etc. What do you do then? You first curse the whole world for not allowing you to drink your morning coffee in peace and then proceed to quickly fix what needs fixing, you don't have time for opening bugs in the issue-tracker or skype-ing the guy who is tele-commuting and trying to explain to him what the hell just happened (by this point your boss might as well be asking passive-aggressively "do you know why this happened?", he's asking you who are on site not the guy who's tele-commuting). And so on and so forth, you just reason inside your head that none of this would have happened if you had had the same "privileges" as the guy who's tele-commuting.

I agree putting out fires are more intense at the office but maybe shouldn't be. But remote and on site office workers can both do the same things in tech to fix those situations except unplugging a machine. Many times the fire to put out is actually on a remote server or only accessible virtually in most cases today with VMs. Unless people pair work all day (doesn't happen) then you still go back to your desks individually and fix it. Remote controlled desktops and skype are actually better for integrations/pair in some cases when working on the same screen even in the same office. Nothing worse than two heads knocking into each other to see one screen.

Your anecdote actually seems to reinforce that for quality of life, remote working can be better. Same type of emergencies but communication has to happen during them, documentation, teamwork not throwing all out the window to fix a fire every two seconds. Yes they happen and rules can be broken to get sites running but overall places with constant fires need internal people. Places run like that aren't going to be successful anyways so blaming remote workers on that seems unfair. If the emergency happened after hours is your company setup to handle this remotely or are people driving in an hour to fix issues? (i.e. remote repos, access etc). Workplaces and teamwork are great but can suck in bad situations, at the office even more sometimes such as during emergencies but it has to be done. I like documented discussions and tasks/plans written out rather than just spoken. These tasks that are just spoken tend to change and are hard to track how long things actually take especially in emergency driven situations.

The modern office even with all the near proximity to others, people still IM, email, etc over face to face quite a bit to prevent interrupting flow states and barging in to fix some issue not related to your tasks that are due at the end of the day. And what about the people in the next building, are you walking over there or are you just IMing like you'd do to a remote worker. Location is almost irrelevant for well run teams.

Our entire company works 'remotely'. There is a nominal headquarters on Castro Street in Mt View CA, but only a fraction of the developers work there. We move fast, work closely together from 5 states and 3 countries, have standup meetings, code review, all of it.

All (almost) cured with Sococo's Teamspace. I work there, we worked hard to remove the friction to remote working, to provide lots of cues missing from other tools. In fact Inow prefer to take part in Teamspace meetings over in-person (butg I've been using it for 3 years).

Remote workers must be judged on how much they produce, while office workers can show up for eight hours and that’s what the office manager remembers.

That's a common situation. I've also seen remote workers get away with doing almost nothing while the co-located ones pick up the slack. I've seen remote working be used as a "reward" for some, and it's lack be a "punishment" for others.

Letting any of these situations happen is down to lousy management and leadership.

I do a heck of a lot of remote work myself - I see many advantages to doing so. But from what I've seen it's not a universal performance benefit.

I've seen smart, committed teams almost double their measured performance by deciding to co-locate to a single team room... even with all the skype video / IM / chat windows you could wish for open. There's a lot of ambient communication that happens in meatspace.

I really wouldn't be surprised if this turns out to be a really smart decision for Yahoo!.

This decision alone won't save Yahoo!, I think the problems are a lot deeper than this.

The return on remote work is dependent on two things: the right people getting hired, and the managers making sure that work is being produced. Anyone left to their own devices is going to slack, unless they are invested emotionally in the job.

There's an old saying: Inspect what you expect. It holds true for office workers and remote workers. Both have the potential to slack or produce. The person in charge needs to measure what each person is producing, and perhaps Yahoo! is lacking a way to measure that right now.

This decision alone won't save Yahoo!, I think the problems are a lot deeper than this.

Wasn't trying to imply that it would ;-)

However I'm less convince by many seem to be that it's a dumb decision.

Especially since, in my experience anyway, fixing those problems of engagement are much easier to do when everybody is in one place.

The return on remote work is dependent on two things: the right people getting hired, and the managers making sure that work is being produced. Anyone left to their own devices is going to slack, unless they are invested emotionally in the job.

There is also a moderate amount of evidence (see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5145358) that there is a performance hit with distributed teams regardless of other factors.

The person in charge needs to measure what each person is producing, and perhaps Yahoo! is lacking a way to measure that right now.

I disagree with the first bit. What folk need to measure is what the productivity of the team/group as a whole. Optimising for individual productivity will often hit global productivity.

What's the point of the faux outrage at Yahoo's HR decision? Most of those outraged probably don't even use Yahoo or have a stake in its future. If they can't at least concede that Yahoo is a company that is fighting for its place in this world then I don't think reflexive justifications for these kinds of perks add much value to the conversation.

This is the 3rd or 4th article in the last few hours on this topic. Apparently the faux outrage is the latest bandwagon to jump on.

It's all a little tiring if you ask me.

It's not about faux outrage. It's about workplace trends. Large companies have a tendency to follow what other large companies do. This isn't about the decision of one company, it's about the mindset of our industry.

> What's the point of the faux outrage at Yahoo's HR decision?

Because Yahoo is still respected enough to affect the decision making process at other companies.

And many of us want to see more flexibility and trust in our work life. Working remotely for many is more than just a "perk".

On the other hand, the perception that being onsite makes me more valuable is the reason I get paid more than somebody in Peoria or Phuket. Even though I think that perception is probably false, I moved to the Valley because I might as well benefit rather than suffer from it. If remote work were the norm, we'd all be competing with people who currently work for rates that would barely feed us, and I'm still surprised the industry sort of gave up on outsourcing rather than solve the fraud problem.

I don't think outsourcing is the big problem, because at the heart of it, you still have to have clear communication.

I think the biggest advantage of living in the Valley would be the ability to meet other people and establish connections. A worker should be paid mostly for the value that they provide to their company, not necessarily just their cost of living.

I don't think that anyone wants to undercut someone else in the industry. That's just a bad practice that hurts everyone in the end.

I agree with other commenters on this topic that really this is about forcing attrition. At some point Yahoo has to make big layoffs. We all know it. They know it. They employees there know it.

Getting a bunch of folks to jump before they're pushed is a great start. It reminds me of the two Bobs from office space: "we fixed the glitch... we tend to find it best to avoid confrontation".

There are plenty of rationalizations for both sides of this decision. I lean to the simplest explanation. They're happy to see folks go.

This doesn't seem so clear-cut to me. Some quick and dirty calculations using 2012 data:

Yahoo: ~$280K profit per employee.

Google: ~$290K profit per employee (not including Motorola Mobility .

Microsoft: ~$180k profit per employee.

Apple: $590K profit per employee.

Apple being off the charts aside, broadly speaking Yahoo is right where they should be. This looks more like an attempt at culture change to me.

(That Apple figure is tremendous when you consider that 2/3rds of their employees work in the retail channel)

Could it be because 2/3rds of their employees work in the retail channel?

It is despite of it.

I feel like that pool of low-skilled employees would only water down the "profit-per-employee" metric.

Hiring someone in sales helps you earn money, but I doubt a single cheerful apple-store worker brings in $500k in merchandise sales for that store.

> Face time at the office shouldn’t trump productivity or collaboration, but in this case, it seems like that’s happening.

I don't think that's happening. I think they're trying to use face time at the office to drive productivity & collaboration.

Which if it's the case then they have a shocking lack of understanding of how people actually work.

I mean people email every day do we need to get rid of that as well ?

it's hard to maintain culture with remote workers. It's a trade off and not clear completely which pattern is better

I'm not sure if we should want to force a company culture on workers. And perhaps this idea of company culture doesn't fit these times anymore. People are much less inclined to stay within the same company for most of their lives anyway.

Personally I never cared too much for a company culture. I don't join a company because of a culture. I join it because the projects are interesting, the money is good, the benefits are nice, etc...

I do feel the approach Yahoo is taking is bad for the company. I'm sure for some work it's good to be at work in the company offices, but for some other work a home environment works much better. In most companies I've worked I always got bothered by other employees, making it much harder to concentrate on tasks. Since june last year I started working with a friend on our start-up and I thrive much better in this environment. Now I work from home and the silence and serenity helps me achieve much better results. I should note I have no wife or kids, just 2 cats, so very little distraction there.

A company like Yahoo should realise that some employees will deliver much better results when giving them more freedom. One example could be Bill Atkinson, who delivered great work for Apple, yet did most of his work at home:


its much easier in start up environments generally to telecommute.

Once a business becomes huge there are other factors at play that may mean there are trade offs. For instance Bill Atkinson left apple in 1990, Similar to Woz. Great people for their time but not happy when it goes corporate.

This is the only article I've read about this, but it seems like an easy way to have mass layoffs without the negative press.

"Remote workers must be judged on how much they produce, while office workers can show up for eight hours and that’s what the office manager remembers. "

Is that true in 2013? Are office workers in a tech company not judged by production?

The strange thing in this quote is that they think Yahoo has office managers. Yahoo is a giant faceless tech company and the things an office manager would do are split between a dozen other faceless contracting companies.

It depends very much on how well things are managed, down to the team level. If there's bad communication, or lack of action by the manager a serial under-performer could slide until it is annual review time, or worse.

> Is that true in 2013?

It's absolutely true and nothing will ever change it. The fact is that likability and fun at the workplace can routinely trump the quality of the output. Especially if the manager is a permanent employee and they expect to spend their life at the company.

I work at a large company and have seen plenty of talented people sidelined and ignored exclusively because they were more introverted.

How do you measure output? If I walk to my coworker's office to ask a question, and that saves me fifteen minutes of digging, that reflects in my output, not his. But if my coworker is remote, I can't do that. I can't get an immediate answer, while he avoids the distraction of helping his team member. In terms of measuring individual output, he looks good, while I look bad.

I believe that co-location forms a sort of prisoner's dilemma. If everyone is local, everyone benefits from increased collaboration, morale, etc. If one person is remote, they benefit more, while acting as a drain on the remainder of the team. And when everyone is remote, then everyone loses.

From (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000068.html): "If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble."

So you saved 15 minutes but cost your coworker 30. That's a net loss, and an argument for remote workers. When I interrupt people, I constantly have this calculation in mind.

In effect, the remote worker saved you from "acting as a drain on the remainder of the team," your post's main concern.

Utter bullshit. You've not heard of Skype?

I am a remote worker, and routinely help coworkers with all shirts of stuff. It works best when everyone's remote.

I've downvoted you - I don't have an opinion on the subject, but I feel that the tone of your response is against the HN norm. Nothing personal.

You're right. I responded in some anger. Need to remind myself, "Do not feed the troll"

Having worked at a large software corp I totally agreethat if you're a remote worker you have to work twice as hard on your output. Since you're not there in person to attend all the meetings, you're less "seen". This adds more pressure on you to deliver, get on calls, work weekends, etc.. I've seen people working from home in Australia and deliver amazing results (for a based SF company). If this is indeed about attrition, I think they may be losing more of the people that they would probably want to keep.

>Remote employees who wish to remain with Yahoo! must uproot their families, move to a more expensive city, and face an hours long commute each day. Frankly, I see the majority of them quitting and going to work for a startup closer to home.

I think she's drastically overestimating how easy it is to change jobs. There's also the fact that, Yahoo, as a large and well established firm, can offer things like generous insurance and retirement plans, which startups generally do not offer.

My guess....Yahoo needs to fire lotsa people (they have 18,000 employees), so probably they are starting: "Oh, you can't move your family from Small Town, Ohio to Big City in 7 days? Unfortunately we have to let you go."

Can such a company afford to fire essentially randomly? Remote workers may be some of the best producers. Generally a reduction-in-force is done more selectively.

I was working at Lucent when they crashed from 106,000 employees to a targeted 37-35,000.

Managers boasted about laying off some of the best producers; I think the subtext was "If they're not safe, no one is".

Granted, this did kill the company (they got bought by Alcatel), and I know it killed the project I was working on when I left/was pushed out, something that was necessary for Lucent's survival (1/2 of the modern style telephone switch, what follows the 5ESS in their case).

They can always sweeten the pot for the best ones. Some have said that Yahoo needs to fire as many as 10,000 people http://www.businessinsider.com/ex-yahoo-marissa-mayer-needs-...

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