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Melissa Mayer took on a tough assignment when she became CEO of struggling Web portal firm Yahoo Inc. last year. The company lacked for leadership, strategy and momentum, and faced a perception its employee culture was a big part of the problem.
In her first few months in the job, Ms. Mayer has made efforts to repair that elusive culture: She gave every employee a smartphone, offered them free cafeteria food, instituted cookie days and attempted to turn Yahoo into a "fun" place. But her morale-building initiative has apparently had a setback since a much-discussed internal memo ordering hundreds of employees who work from home on a permanent basis to relocate to company offices. Some critics have portrayed it as a draconian and spirit-killing move that will drive employees away and make notoriously fickle Silicon Valley job seekers avoid Yahoo.
The criticism seems a bit overblown. There is a lot of lip service paid to creative, fun cultures as the driving force behind successful companies, but the reverse is probably more accurate: an enjoyable work environment is often a naturally occurring by-product of a successful company. IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and SAP aren't exactly famous for being creative or fun, but they draw employees because they offer well paying jobs and the chance to work for thriving technology companies with career opportunities.
Many startup-seeking programmers are typically drawn to places where they can do exciting and stimulating work, in areas such as space robotics or mobile apps that can creatively destroy established industries. The existence of a playful work environment usually does not factor highly in what draws them to an employer. The existence of a playful work environment may be a draw, but not nearly as much as the chance to change the world that some Silicon Valley employers offer.
Meanwhile, it seems too many Yahoo employees might have been having a bit too much fun at the company's expense. Some Yahoo insiders have said that rather than being unnecessarily harsh, Ms. Mayer is merely making a long-needed change, ending a policy that was abused by many and will help reduce a chronic slacking-off problem within the company. Having too many employees working away from the office on a permanent basis – and apparently quite out of touch from colleagues and superiors – is a dumb way to manage a company, particularly if it hampers productivity or the collaborative forces that initially made Yahoo a success.
It may make Yahoo a bit less fun for a while, but if the payoff is a better, more successful company, the sour faces shouldn't last for long.
Sean Silcoff is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow Sean on Twitter at @seansilcoff.