What Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate means

Marrisa Mayer has rescinded Yahoo’s existing remote work policy, basically telling everyone to get their asses in the office or hit the road (see Yahoo’s Mayer thinks that remote workers are… too remote). She’s a product of Google, and so we can assume that she’s playing by an interior rule book that she learned — and even helped to craft — over there. But what does it say about Google’s culture and what she thinks about Yahoo?

Edgar Schein is one of the pioneers of the idea of organizational structure. In his thinking, culture is the most difficult thing to change in business, persisting long past products, services, founders, and all other physical and tangible aspects of the firm. His culture model has three cognitive tiers:

  1. Artifacts — The aspects of a business that can be seen, felt, and observed. These include facilities, factories, office layout and furnishings, the way people behave and dress, how they interact with outsiders, and slogans, missions, and other explicit representations of corporate meaning, like corporate stories, rituals, and myths.
  2. Values — The professed shared values of an organization’s members, which indicate preferences in the organization’s self-identity. For example a chemical company might pride itself on safety, or a delivery service on timeliness and customer support. This cognitive level can be assessed by surveys or questioning employees, because these vales are openly discussed and widely shared internally and externally.
  3. Tacit assumptions — The most hidden cognitive level, and one that is often difficult to get at are the tacit assumptions that form the substratum of the culture. These assumptions are generally not openly discussed, and may be taboo within the organization. This is the layer of culture that is often missed by casual or cursory assessments.

Schein’s model can be used to shed some light on the Yahoo policy change. On one hand, Yahoo’s HR head said that communication and collaboration are important, and these are amplified by coworking. And she went a bit further, saying that ‘speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’. That’s the values level speaking.

But underneath that, what are the tacit assumptions? Tammy Erickson wrote about this assumption last year.

Tammy Erickson, Meaning Is The New Money

Here’s one assumption many organizations live by: If you can see your employees working, they’re productive. If you pay them more, they’ll work harder.

Working in a world of extended collaboration asks individuals to contribute through a different and, in many ways, more complex set of activities. Workers must deal with rich content that flows through infinite links. Individuals must make intelligent, well-informed decisions about what to share with whom (and what not to) with less guidance from the hierarchy to simplify the patterns of interaction. And they must dig deep within themselves to form innovative ideas and put their best thinking forward.

To a large extent, the conduct of these activities is not something managers can prescribe or even monitor. Unlike process-based work, in which the goal is to perform synchronized tasks consistently and reliably, extended collaboration occurs asynchronously and is often aimed at discovering or developing something new. Rather than requiring everyone to be in the same place at the same time, extended collaboration can occur virtually. In process-based work, quality can be assured through in-process inspection and performance judged on conformity to process specifications, while the quality of collaborative work can typically be assessed only by the results achieved.

Perhaps most significantly, extended collaboration requires high levels of discretionary effort. People have to choose to do it and have to want to do it well. Leaders can create a context in which that is likely to happen, but collaboration cannot be mandated. It requires high levels of employee engagement.

Turn it around: unwatched employees slack off.

My sense is that this is a desire to control people work more directly at the individual contributor level, and perhaps force out people who want to run free. She’s trying to tighten the organization through management control, and later on, by inculcating new values.

But my deep belief is that innovation is significantly more critical today that learning the company playbook. I favor a culture based on a small set of broad spectrum rules — like ‘play fair’, ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’, and ‘you have to go slow to go fast’ — which work best when everyone follows them, but still work when even a subset do. But a culture based on tacit assumptions of management control cannot compete against companies founded on self-control and autonomy in an economy that favors the lean, loose, and distributed.

Behind it all, Mayer may be trying to recreate the Google of ten years ago, but that world is gone forever.