All Articles Leadership Strategy The real risk Marissa Mayer runs with her work-at-home policy

The real risk Marissa Mayer runs with her work-at-home policy

6 min read


The same week Yahoo rescinded teleworking policies for its employees, Best Buy did the same. Many pointed to the fact that Yahoo’s working-mom CEO got flack when Best Buy’s working-dad CEO didn’t as an unfair occurrence caused by gender inequity.

While I suspect that, unfortunately, Marissa Mayer was a better criticism target because she’s a woman/mom, I also think Yahoo was a better target than Best Buy for branding reasons. Yahoo builds exactly the kind of products designed to help work-at-home employees. On its face, then, Yahoo’s rejection of such practices for its own employees looks like a brand misalignment. I mentioned this in a previous article, and it generated a conversation on Twitter that I thought deserved more than 140 characters.

Lest you think that I am supporting an end to work-at-home policies, I’m not. I want to show you that, to the extent that such policy changes are made intentionally and communicated in ways that help reinforce the brand promise to employees and customers, even unpopular decisions can reinforce a brand’s market position. Best Buy will have an easier time of this than Yahoo for reasons outlined below.

Creating a brand that makes sense to the market — especially when a leaked employee memo can set the Internet ablaze as Yahoo’s did — means you have to avoid the two biggest mistakes of internal branding.

Branding mistake No. 1: Forgetting to co-create your brand

Brands aren’t what we say they are, they’re what people experience about us. Telling your employees (or customers) about your brand isn’t nearly as powerful as inviting them to help you create it. Then they understand it deeply and have a vested interest in its success. According to Cindy Atlee of The Storybranding Group, this is the biggest mistake internal branding efforts make. They treat creating an internal brand for employees like making a candy bar wrapper for consumers. They run some focus groups and do a creative blitz for a few days before turning back to “real business.”

I once inadvertently helped a client make this mistake. We designed employee brand programs where employee brand ambassadors would recognize team members for the way they lived the company’s values and internally blogging kudos across continents. The ambassador program — received with enthusiasm — was dumped the day after the first ambassador’s meeting because no one in HR or marketing volunteered to coordinate it on an ongoing basis. The grumbling could be heard over the oceans. As a result of too many of these inauthentic exercises, employees have learned to be cynical, and I’ve learned not to take such projects unless they’re fully funded through the implementation phase.

Yahoo and Best Buy run this risk with their culture-development policies. If they’re inviting employees into an authentic discussion of how to accommodate work-life issues while firing up the creative spirit at the home office, then they’re probably going to be just fine with their new work-at-the-office policies. If not, they risk making the policy an obstacle to people’s lives, creating unnecessary resistance to the new internal brand of innovation and team-building.

Branding mistake No. 2: Forgetting about the business

Some brand exercises are just creative navel-gazing. The branders (often including the CEO) fall in love with the creative process and forget that the colors and fun must align with and accentuate the business — its objectives, its uniqueness and, most importantly, its market positioning. Some employment policies are just spreadsheet exercises, ignoring that policies made for financial reasons have broader market implications.

Yahoo is toying with these risks, too. To generate employee enthusiasm, they did a lot of fun things — stocking the kitchens with free food and taking steps to reduce bureaucracy. Whether any of these things are truly aligned with the business direction Mayer is putting into place remains unknown. The board’s choice of Mayer as CEO was originally interpreted as a move away from its focus on becoming a media company and a return to being a product-driven technology brand. The work-at-the-office policy appears to fly in the face of this, signaling potential distrust of the very tools it makes possible for consumers. This demonstrates how an internal brand/policy decision can create external brand confusion if left unmanaged.

Best Buy’s decision to bring workers back to the office by ending its use of a Results Only Work Environment program makes a bit more business strategy sense given that it’s a location-based retail business whose top brand promise to customers is, “We’ll never leave you hanging.” Presumably, if you’re a customer “left hanging” at a store, the employees should be there with you trying to get you unhooked. Best Buy’s on-site presence has a different value to the Best Buy consumer than it does to the Yahoo customer. To “Renew Blue” and bring the company out of the doldrums, there’s some brand consistency with “pulling the team together” on-site — a brand consistency that Yahoo! doesn’t have.

Do it right — align your brands.

Internal branding to employees is usually little more than an interpretation of the external brand to ensure employees deliver the customer experience appropriately. When it’s a powerful and motivating force for company culture, however, it’s also a promise to employees about what they can expect from the company. Internal brand promises are implemented via communications and workplace policies.

Whether you’re trying to or not, you have an internal brand; it’s the expression and experience of your company culture. What’s most important for results is that the internal and external brands are aligned. Here is a simple graphic demonstrating the relationship between these things.

Brand alignment means your employees’ experience of you is consistent with what your business strategy asks them to accomplish in the marketplace. To do this right, when you roll out new internal policies, tell the story of how they relate — authentically — to your external brand promise. If you believe it, so will your employees.

Whether Yahoo and Best Buy work-at-work policies succeed remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, it will be a result of brand alignment with company culture more than it will be a result of a single employee policy. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business culture by design that integrates lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.