House party's over for a tired Yahoo!

As Yahoo! generates headlines with the end of its work-from-home policy, the new internet innovators are stealing the spotlight for what Yahoo! used to do.

You can be sure Yahoo!’s PR team hasn’t been this busy for a while. Over the past few days the internet brand has returned with a vengeance back to the pages of newspapers and websites, and for the first time in a long time it seems to be getting more press than its competitors' efforts combined.

Which is no mean feat in a week where further details around Google’s groundbreaking ‘Glass’ project have been unveiled, Facebook continues to grow its game changing its FBX advertising exchange, Instagram pushes past 100 million users and Google, again, released to the market its first laptop, the Chromebook Pixel.

In a week that has seen the titans of the tech world continue to innovate and blur the lines between media, technology and hardware, Yahoo! has still managed to capture the attention of the mainstream media, despite it unfairly often being pigeonholed as a legacy of the internet’s past.

How did it do it? How did it manage to steal oxygen from media darlings Facebook and Google? What is the next exciting direction it is taking under new chief executive Marissa Mayer that has the media so hot and heavy?

Well, that’s the problem.

So far there isn’t really any new direction. There might be, it’s hard to say, but if there is it certainly hasn’t been outlined by the new management in any depth. The reason the media is once again captivated by Yahoo! is that Mayer has decided that Yahoo!’s past policy of allowing some employees to work remotely has been scrapped. Yahoo!, like many technology companies, has long since had an accommodating stance on staff working from home. Mayer has decided that no longer works for the company.

The last time Yahoo! received this sort of media was when they hired the then heavily pregnant Mayer to run the company. The media found it incredibly interesting that Yahoo! had hired someone who was six months pregnant and devoted a lot time to covering this significant news event.

Whether or not Mayer is right or wrong to ask employees to work from a dedicated office facility doesn’t really matter. Right now I guess it’s easy to think it’s a no-brainer, the company is struggling to grow and is being surpassed in key areas by competitors. Thus, getting the team together to gel in a common environment may be seen as a way to stop the decline.

Apparently being at Yahoo! now "isn't just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices”.

Flexibility around working arrangements used to be a hallmark of Yahoo!’s culture. I was lucky enough to work at the company from 2004 to 2006 and the idea of some staff working from home was well accepted. It had been something the company had been open to since it was founded.

Yahoo! has always been in its present corporate predicament – flat financials. Throughout most of the 2000s it was the most successful player in the web-advertising world – a darling for both users and advertisers. It had a bunch of great people at the company throughout the world and enjoyed years of advancement, a growing stock price (post the dot-com crash in 2000), financial improvement and some truly inspiring product development.

During that time Yahoo! wasn’t in the news due to poorly worded all-company directives. It was in the news due to its product, its results and its contribution to changing the web and the way people interacted with it. It was in the news for the central role it played in developing the area of digital advertising and giving large clients faith to come back to the web after the empty promises and failed initiatives that symbolised dot-com excess.

And here is Yahoo! in 2013, a week after a lacklustre earnings presentation which showed limited growth and offered limited insight into the strategy for the future, all over the news for a human resources issue. Does working from home adversely affect the performance of the company? Who knows? There would be no shortage of evidence from both sides of the fence supporting their respective positions but probably no conclusive proof.

The thing that stands out to me is this question: when was the last time a Yahoo! product initiative gathered this sort of attention around the world? Don’t get me wrong, I am a frequent Yahoo! user. I believe the company has some great products, and I believe it’s a company that has the opportunity to bounce back. My concern is that my feelings aren’t shared that much by the wider world, especially when the topic of Mayer and the working from home ban is the first thing that has gotten my friends and family talking about Yahoo! for years.

While Google, Apple and Facebook are in the press for pushing the boundaries of what is possible on the web, Yahoo! right now makes the papers due to its HR policies. That’s the real issue for Mayer and her team.

Ben Shepherd is a media and technology consultant. He blogs at Talking Digital and can be found on Twitter @shepherd and LinkedIn

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