In only a few short months as CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer has managed to accomplish a feat that has taken other occupants of corner offices years to master: putting her right foot in her mouth, then, not content with the ensuing media brouhaha, repeating it with her left.
The first foot to be inserted was Mayer’s crackdown on telecommuting and working from home. No more of that, Mayer said; starting in June, anyone who wants to work from home can find another company to pay them to do so. “We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together," she said in the widely-circulated “confidential” memo to employees.
That was bad enough, especially in the eyes of mothers trying to combine parenting with full-time work. Then came the icing on the cake when a PBS documentary, Makers, aired, complete with a comment from Mayer, before she joined Yahoo, that she doesn’t consider herself to be a feminist, and her association of the concept of feminism with having a “militant drive” or “a chip on the shoulder” and “negative energy.”
In some ways, it has been reassuring to witness the flap that has followed Mayer’s comments. After attending graduate school in Japan in the early 1980s, where I was told that because I was a woman I should be silent in the seminars I was taking and even that I shouldn’t be pursuing further education at all as it would be wasted on me, I vowed that I would never back away from the label of feminist. To me, all that it meant – and all that it means – is that no one has a right to tell me what I must do or what I cannot do simply because of my gender. That’s it, pure and simple. So while it is rather dismaying to see Mayer – the beneficiary of a lot of female trailblazers who put up with a lot of harassment and ridicule for asserting those basic principles – shun the label, it has been comforting to see that many women of all ages have challenged her on this.
Now comes the harder question: Is the ability to work from home a particularly feminist – or female – issue? While some of the most vocal proponents of telecommuting may be women raising children, this is an issue that goes well beyond that, and affects workers of all kinds. I’m a woman, but not a working parent, and I’ve been working from home for more than a decade now. My neighbor is male, and he is the stay-at-home parent for his five-year-old son, and he has been working at home for years. This is an issue of worker productivity at a time when the bonds between companies and employees are becoming increasingly strained and tenuous.
What matters to any company – or what should matter – is that its employees get the work done. In some cases, that clearly means working in an office or other group setting. If you’re doing medical research aimed at developing new drugs, clearly that means traveling into your employer’s laboratory to conduct experiments and consult with colleagues. If you’re employed as a chef or waiter, it would be rather foolish to work anywhere but the restaurant.
But the Internet has opened up entirely new ways of interacting with each other, and entirely new kinds of jobs, even as it has transformed the jobs that some of us already have. A salesperson might work in online sales, for instance – a job that theoretically could be from home. To the extent that the retailer doesn’t have to pay the same wages to someone working in their home in West Virginia or Maine as they would to someone in New York or San Francisco to do this job, it’s a cost savings to the company. And it is – at least, potentially – a productivity “win.”
Clearly, Mayer faces some issues with productivity at Yahoo, but I question whether those who work from their homes are the issue. As I type these words, it’s 8:17 p.m., and I have been working since about 9:45 a.m., with one brief break to make myself a sandwich. I haven’t lost any time to commuting (the commute is a trip down a flight of stairs to my home office), and as long as I’m disciplined and focused, I’m likely to be far more productive here than in an office setting. I know, because I’ve worked in one of those, too.
Trips to pick up coffee; distractions near my cubicle; discussions about projects that go on longer than they really need to (or than they would if they were simply conference calls) all serve to eat into time devoted to work. And when you’re working in an office, who wants to still be toiling away after 8 p.m. (unless you’re an investment banker anticipating a hefty bonus)?
There are upsides to working in the same physical location as colleagues, of course. First among them is what I think of as the serendipity factor: simply being around when someone shares a thought out loud, and various other colleagues chip in with their thoughts, and the idea becomes a project. But that’s an elusive and intangible benefit; is there value in sacrificing employee morale and other gains from being able to work from home in exchange for it?
Companies like Yahoo and CEOs like Mayer need to ponder the issues of morale and loyalty. Over the last decade or more, the balance of power between companies and their employees has shifted increasingly in favor of the former. Only a small minority of workers today belong to a union; a majority work in states that have “at will” employment laws, meaning that their jobs are anything but secure. Employees over 40 realize how hard every extra year makes it to find a new job after being laid off. Wages have stagnated, and employees pay an ever-increasing share of their benefits (or get no benefits whatsoever). Or they are contract employees, with no job security whatsoever.
Employee morale is already threatened by these trends, and whatever productivity Mayer may gain by requiring all her employees to gather in Yahoo’s offices during whatever kind of working day she feels is optimal may end up being offset by the loss of productivity seen when employees feel less loyal and more resentful. This isn’t just a feminist issue; it’s a workforce issue. It affects the employee who faces a three-hour daily commute; the employee who combines working efficiently from home with caring for an aging parent; the employee with a medical condition that makes working from home a better option. For some of us it is a lifestyle choice; for some of us it is a choice shaped by the needs of our families; for some of us it isn’t a choice at all but a requirement for us to be able to work productively.
Employees are individuals. Companies that recognize that and are able to distinguish which employees and roles can be handled efficiently from home and which require close collaboration at company facilities will, I believe, be the businesses that command both loyalty and efficiency. Few of us who work from home, whether it’s one day a month or five days a week, 52 weeks a year, take that for granted. To the extent that Yahoo has tolerated telecommuters who don’t deliver in terms of productivity or don’t measure up on other scores, well, it’s probably not about the telecommuting. Odds are that they are the kind of people who, in an office environment, would spend half their time playing Minesweeper or Solitaire on their computer, chit-chatting on the phone or engaging in myriad other forms of creative time-wasting.
Working in an office environment is no panacea, and Yahoo certainly already possesses the ability to axe telecommuters it believes are abusing the privilege. Adopting a blanket ban, however, is a step too far, especially for a company struggling to deal with the impact of having had five CEOs in the last 18 months.
To do her job, Mayer needs the help and support of all Yahoo employees. So far, she has chosen an odd way of earning it.