The Mayer Memo: words of wisdom from MySQL’s Marten Mickos

Here’s an interesting take on the ‘work from home’ debate that Marissa Mayer started and that is still raging (people really don’t want to go to the office!).

I came across it this morning on Slashdot. It’s an interview with former MySQL CEO and European entrepreneur of the year 2006 Marten Mickos.  Currently, he is CEO at Eucalyptus.

Mickos has always worked a lot with what he calls a “distributed workforce”. MySQL had 70 % of the workers working from home, out of a total of 500 (Yahoo has more than 10 000, if the number floating around the internet is correct).

The MySQL workers were based in 32 countries across 18 time zones. Today, as CEO of Eucalyptus, he says he has a few employees in Bangladesh and India that he never even met.

I think his take is one of the most balanced things I’ve read about the Mayer Memo. I selected 6 insights from it and edited them a bit for clarity. The video is below.

1. “Going to the office is a 19th century invention”

It’s clear that Mickos a fan of working from home. He says: going to work in an office is a concept of the industrial revolution.

“The whole notion of going to an office and having work hours is a new invention. It came with the industrial revolution. Before that, people worked wherever they were, they didn’t have a distinction between free time and work time. They did the work they had to, and if they could take time off for a harvest feast or something, they did. And I think this modern distributed organization is modeled based on what has been working for thousands of years.”

But the question is of course, how to deal with remote work.

2. “You have to manage remote teams by culture and vision”

Says Mickos: with everybody spread around the globe, you cannot manage through command and control. Rather, you have to manage through vision and culture.

“You must agree on how you behave, and what the company culture is. And then you let them do what they know they need to do. That is how it works. If you think you must observe them and monitor them and command them, and control them, then it won’t work for you.”

3. “It works in any industry with an intangible product, or at least for the jobs that are creative”

Remote working can work in any industry that produces “intangible” products, says Mickos. That means software, but also politics, medicine, science and arts (add media to that). Even finance and marketing, which are increasingly creative jobs.

“We had accounts receivables, marketing, some of the accounting. There are functions where you have to be in an office, you have to put things on real paper and store them in a real cabinet. I am not saying you can live completely without it. But I don’t see any part of the organization that couldn’t be at least partly distributed among people who work from their homes.”

4. “It’s not for everyone”

But: it’s not for everyone. Working from home requires self-motivation, and not everybody has that.

Mårten: “I call it the fishing village analogy. Our people at MySQL and now at Eucalyptus are like fishermen. They live in a fishing village and are social together, but every morning before the sun dawns, they go out in their small boats to sea and they are all on their own. They come back when they have caught fish.”

When recruiting, he says “you must check that they truly belong to the portion of the world population that is capable of working from home, because not everybody is.”

People who work from home,says Mickos “need to be able to live not just their professional life, but convey their personality online as well. The argument against distributed teams is that body language doesn’t work. That is not true. You can bring your personality and even your body language online if you decide to do so. That is how you make it work.”

(Personally, I would have loved to hear more about how to make sure you pick people that are capable of this. This stays a bit vague.)

5. “Don’t see it as a way to save costs”

And don’t think of a work at home policy as a way to save costs, he adds. “We told ourselves that what we saved in office costs, we spent in travel costs. And that is probably more or less true. Maybe we saved a little bit but not much.”

6. “Marissa Mayer is not necessarily wrong”

Mickos won’t say whether he thinks Mayer is making a mistake, though. “I think we can’t know the situation there, and Yahoo! is a company that needs to reinvent itself. So they would need to take some drastic action even beyond what is rational and useful for others.”

[Slashdot][photo: Flickr, ishane]

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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