Yahoo Says No to Mobility

Lemme get this straight – mobility is at the center of Yahoo’s strategy, but they prohibit such for their own workers? Huh?

I have spent essentially all of the past 21+ years telling people how important mobility is. How it enables, complements, and enhances our very nature as human beings. How information systems can take advantage of advances in wireless and mobile technologies to make anytime/anywhere productivity possible. In other words, how to be location-independent when it comes to work or play.

So I was surprised to find that new Yahoo CEO Marisa Meyer is now insisting (via a memo sent by a senior HR person, and, horrors, leaked to the press) that all employees must come to the office every day. How they must waste otherwise productive time commuting. How the company must pay ever more for real estate. Oh, yes, sure, free lunches and dry cleaning and whatever's done along these lines in big Silicon Valley firms these days are partial compensation. But the real benefit to the firm here, and there's little arguing with this, is that people in close physical proximity to one another will interact more, and, while there are no guarantees, such interaction may improve productivity. Communication of almost any form, after all, can yield such a benefit.

But, gee, I'm sorry, and I know this sounds at least partially self-serving, but haven't we been working so hard all these years to minimize the behavioral and performance difference between wired and wireless communications, between mobile and desktop computers, and between new-fangled subscriber units like handsets and tablets and more traditional computing and information devices, so that we don't all have to be seated in the same physical location to be productive? Are contemporary collaborative IT solutions still falling so short as to be abandoned wholesale? Have those of us in the mobility business failed so abjectly at our mission that CEOs like Ms. Meyer must issue such edicts? Am I wasting my time?

But wait - isn't Yahoo in the midst of trying, like all of the other big advertising companies out there, to monetize and otherwise take advantage of mobility? Are handsets and tablets not the most popular subscriber units today? But, then, perhaps mobility is purely for consumers, while real work can only be done at the office?

I personally gave up a daily 90-minute commute over two decades ago and would not today consider any job that involves commuting. By my calculation, that number above amounts to about 8,000 hours - or about 1,000 working days - spent on activities other than polluting the air with combusting fossil fuels and sitting in traffic. And that's just me. Sure, I'll be the first to admit that some of that time was spent traveling by other means, and that some of that travel was for, um, the purpose of sitting in meetings face-to-face with others. There's tens of thousands of years of culture, after all, around this mode of communication, and new technologies usually take quite some time to alter culture to a meaningful degree. We're certainly not there yet when it comes to duplicating the in-office experience from anywhere - but we can do it, and we're well on our way. We, and this includes you, Yahoo, should be investing in and, yes, embracing mobility. I will continue to argue that firms that do will crush those that don't.

I remember back when I was an engineering manager at GRiD systems, around 1981, and we had Jugi Tandon, the head of the firm of the same name, in the office one day (we were buying floppy disk drives from him). When we asked what the secret to his success was, he offered: learn to operate distributed. Music to the ears of course, of those of us building the first laptop computer. But I believe that guidance remains even more valuable today.

Ms. Meyer is, IMHO, dead wrong with her 1950's-style edict, and I'm not going to work at Yahoo. I suspect that many others, including numerous current Yahoo employees, feel the same way.

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