Get Back to Work, Yahoo! How Losing Connection Hinders Employee Engagement

As I type this blog, I am gazing out the window of my home office at the beautiful snow-covered mountains of Utah. Not day-dreaming, really. Thinking.

It’s certainly a better view than looking across the busy street I see from my regular office. I try to work from home at least once a week. I find it allows me to focus on those things I can’t necessarily accomplish at the office—writing being one of these. Even when I set aside blocks of time at the office, I am regularly interrupted by emails, urgent phone calls, and the familiar, “hey, boss, do you have two minutes?” I love my team, but multiply those interruptions by 30 and a day goes by fairly quickly without much getting crossed off my “important-but-not-urgent” list.

Working from home once in a while is critical to my role. For hundreds of workers at Yahoo!—affectionately known as Yahoos!—that remote work option has just changed. They have just learned that the days of working from home are over, at least if they want to remain employed at Yahoo! after June.

CEO Marissa Mayer has done a lot to focus on the struggling company’s dearth of employee engagement. She has revamped the organization structure, and has worked hard to improve the employee experience through such actions as providing employees with smartphones and bringing in free food. But, remember, this is the same CEO that told reporters, “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.” According to CNN, Mayer issued a company-wide memo through HR dictating that the 800-1,000 Yahoos! currently working from home would need to relocate to the office if they wished to remain employed. Ouch!

I’ll admit, even though I managed to shower and dress for the day, the likelihood of me running a razor across my face today is about nil. Why bother? The kids won’t even be home from school until after 3, and they could care less about whether dad maintains a personal appearance conducive to a professional working environment. So what must be going through the heads of hundreds of Yahoos! that are accustomed to working remotely?

For many Yahoos!, the difference to date between casual Fridays and any other day of the week has been whether or not to include underwear with the daily sweatpants ensemble. Working from home brings with it the obvious advantages of no commute, a more comfortable environment, and the ability to be home when the salsa-of-the-month-club package shows up at the doorstep (thanks, DecisionWise team—still loving the Christmas gift!).

Numerous articles also extol the business virtues of remote employees: reduced costs, higher levels of productivity, and increased engagement and dedication, to name a few. However, other studies point out the obvious opposite side of the equation: personal distractions, difficulty to manage, distrust, and lack of social connection.

Regarding the last point—social connection…
Citing improved communication and collaboration as key reasons for the change, Mayer announced that in order for Yahoo! to be one of the best places to work, employees had to be in close proximity of one another. While some would argue these points (especially those that have enjoyed the benefits of distance), there is a lot to be said about social interaction that cannot necessarily be achieved through email, telephone, or video conferencing.

Last week I participated in two-day leadership development session with a stellar team of individuals. One constant theme was the plea, from those working remotely, to “PLEASE” include them in communication and important information. While very professional, and certainly hard working, these offsite individuals were not feeling that connection so necessary to engagement.

As we review those factors that contribute to engagement—Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection—we clearly see that a feeling that one belongs to a greater community (i.e., work team, department, organization, company, etc.) helps us to be more engaged in the work we do. We more clearly recognize our part in the greater whole. Some may claim to have the ability to maintain this connection while working remotely, but common sense tells us that communication and collaboration is about much more than a few emails and a weekly conference call. Working remotely, I may miss this important factor, regardless of my work ethic.

Remote employees often report feeling disconnected from the organization. I first learned this nearly two decades ago when the idea of eLearning first took off. The premise was great—one could learn from his/her own desktop without wasting valuable time in the classroom. Great idea, but it was found by many that much of what an individual learned didn’t come from the training CD, but from the valuable face-to-face exchange between coworkers. Computer-based training was taking away that learning opportunity. Applying this to remote workers, we see that there is true value in those face-to-face connections that cannot be relegated to electronic instant messages.
So, get back to work, Yahoos! According to your CEO, you will more productive. Wait—I am the CEO. Maybe that’s why my employees are asking to work from home.

Employee Engagement Survey

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