Trust And Leadership In The World Of Remote Work

remote workWithout trust, true leadership is impossible. Marissa Mayer, a rising star at Google, quickly learned this lesson when she became CEO of Yahoo in 2012. Trained as an engineer with a reputation for data-driven decision-making, one of her first major decisions irreversibly squandered whatever trust her considerable reputation as a superstar at Google commanded.

One of Mayer’s first major edicts at Yahoo eliminated telecommuting. Edicts, whatever their content, rarely inspire trust. Mayer defended the decision as part of her strategy to better align Yahoo work culture with customer service. Like many high-tech companies, Yahoo had evolved a work culture that empowered staffers to work from home at least part of the week. The ability to telecommute solves real problems for workers trying to balance their careers with the demands of raising children, caring for elders, and navigating the complexities of modern life. Many high-tech companies report significant economic and productivity benefits by unshackling employees from their cubicles.

The immediate reaction to Mayer’s edict from both inside and outside Yahoo was fierce and critical. Yahoo colleagues saw the company’s policy on telecommuting as a reflection of the company’s trust.  When Mayer announced that henceforth Yahoo workers would be required to return to their cubicles, the defiance from both employees and the media was instant and unforgiving. In retrospect, Mayer’s failure as the CEO of Yahoo can be traced to this decision. By requiring workers to show up, Mayer inadvertently stepped into the biggest trust landmine that employers and employees have been tripping over about since formal employment began.

“can workers be trusted to do their jobs if employers cannot monitor them every instant?”

The controversy about remote work is really about trust. Specifically, can workers be trusted to do their jobs if employers cannot monitor them every instant? The command and control philosophy of industrial work assumes that workers are inherently lazy and will slack off unless they know they are being watched. Under this philosophy, employees are punished if they are not always conspicuously engaged in observable work activity.

In response, work structures have evolved so supervisors can monitor the activities of workers. It’s an inherently low-trust approach that signals “If the boss can’t see you working, you’re not working.” Gathering all employees in one physical location better enables managers to enforce the doctrines of command and control. This approach, unfortunately, continues to define most of the workplaces in the world.

Within months of Mayer’s decision to end remote work at Yahoo, the company’s human resources metrics showed a double-digit drop in employee engagement, morale, and trust. It was all downhill from there. Mayer resigned as CEO in 2017 as the company was being acquired by Verizon for $4.8 billion. When Mayer was hired five years earlier, the company was worth double that.

Outside her office while she was at Google, Mayer displayed a large sign that said, “Revenue solves all known problems.” The catchphrase, which was originally attributed to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, was a reminder to teammates to focus relentlessly on profitable innovations that meet the needs of customers. But the philosophy is wrong. Revenue does not solve all known problems. Specifically, it does not solve the problem of a leader losing the trust of her colleagues. Mayer would argue that had she succeeded in Yahoo bringing in increasing amounts of revenue, the trust issue would have become an after-thought. But she would have been wrong.