Yahoo! president and CEO Marissa Mayer defended her controversial decision to terminate the company's teleworking policy at the Great Place to Work conference in L.A. recently.

Her keynote presentation generated a lot of buzz among attendees and fellow speakers before she even took the stage. Tamar Elkeles, chief learning officer for another technology company, Qualcomm, argued that in today's world, work and life are so blended that work-life balance has turned into work flexibility. At the beginning of her keynote presentation, Mayer said she needed "to talk about the elephant in the room."

In February, employees were told that the company was ending its work-from-home program, though Mayer said it has made some exceptions. "We were doing what was right for Yahoo! right now. It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative," she said. "We've done a lot recently in terms of increasing the spirit of the campus. We wanted to make sure our employees were drawn to it and could really collaborate there."

"There's a theory I subscribe to, that people are more productive when they're alone, but they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together," said Mayer.

Successful organizations have very strong company cultures, she said, so her goal after taking the helm of the stagnating company in 2012 was "not to change the culture because [Yahoo!] has a tremendous culture already, but to amplify the culture," she said.

In addition to bringing employees back to the office, Mayer initiated weekly Friday afternoon "all hands" meetings where workers welcome new employees, celebrate milestones and successes at the company, and show short product demos.

At the end of the meeting, Mayer answers any employee questions honestly and candidly. Employees post their questions using a moderator tool, and their colleagues can vote the query up or down to make sure their favorites get answered. If a question has more than 100 up votes, Mayer answers it during the meeting or in writing afterward.

The company hosts the meetings at the end of the day on Fridays to punctuate the week and discuss its progress over the past five days. It also hosts a social happy hour after the meeting so employees can bond. Meetings are available via webcast and are archived for those who can't attend.

To further encourage collaboration, the Yahoo! CEO made employee meals free in all cafeterias at all of its locations worldwide.

"The nice thing about free food is that it causes community and reduces issues from processes, bureaucracies and jams. Instead of standing in line for the cashiers, they can be sitting and talking to colleagues," she explained.

Mayer has worked hard to correct all processes, bureaucracies and jams (which she terms "PB&J") that obstruct the company and employee efficiency. So far, her team has changed 560 issues. For example, it eliminated lengthy company policies. Though it "made our legal team very nervous," said Mayer, it transformed its legalese-filled policies into overarching principles. Instead of a travel policy, it set commonsense principles for employees to book travel economically, sensibly and as far in advance as possible. Mayer said her employees consider the paradigm shift freeing and empowering.

In the spirit of making employee meetings and questions transparent, Mayer and other top leaders announce their quarterly goals to the company and post them on the company intranet. Every employee in the company posts their personal, team and corporate goals on the intranet as well, so everyone can see current and past goals. Within 14 days of launching this process last October, everyone at Yahoo! had posted their goals.

 

 

Big thoughts, big goals

Since the company generates $5 billion in revenue a year, Mayer encourages her employees to think big. She asks workers to focus on the nine-figure rule - if the idea won't generate $100 million in revenue or add 100 million new users, "then it's probably not a big enough idea for us," she said.

Employees set measureable goals but aren't necessarily expected to accomplish 100% of the goal. Mayer wants her employees to conceive and implement immense ideas. She said she expects their goals to fall below the 70% completion rate, because if they achieve close to 100% of their aim, then the goal was too easy to achieve.

So far, Mayer is encouraged by the company's success in improving its culture. In Q1 of 2013, job applications to the company increased three-fold. Further, 14% of the new hires were boomerangs, meaning they returned to the company after having worked somewhere else for a time.

"I think it's amazing that 14% of people we hired in Q1 want to come back and help Yahoo! return to greatness," she said.

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