Marissa Mayer’s Bad Business Decision

1103-marissa-mayer_atIt seems that the mothers of America have been talking nonstop about one person for the past two weeks: Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo CEO who put an end to the widespread practice of working from home. Mayer has been called anti-family, anti-feminist, and hypocritical (for setting up a nursery near her office to simplify motherhood for her while at the same time making it harder for every other mom who works at Yahoo). More than a few people have wished terrible things upon her and her family, as in, “I hope her kid gets sick EVERY DAY.”

But as a mother who has seen every possible work arrangement in my 25 years in the publishing industry, I disagree with the premise that mothers who are employed by Yahoo (or any company) deserve flexibility just because they are mothers. Everyone in the workplace needs flexibility, and when we as mothers demand this benefit only for ourselves, we guarantee that we lose the argument.

It isn’t only mothers who struggle to balance their professional and personal lives. So do fathers. And so do people without kids. Every one of us has a parent, sibling, or friend who sometimes needs our time and attention during the workday. We all have furniture deliveries, car repairs, and other personal obligations that we sometimes have no choice but to take care of during standard work hours—and it’s pointless and punitive for employers to operate as though that isn’t the case. Working from home during those times—if we have jobs that make that a realistic option—is a benefit appreciated by parents and non-parents alike.

For many of us who live in congested areas like New York City and Silicon Valley, there is also the expensive, time-consuming, stress-inducing commute to consider. If we have jobs that can be accomplished from anywhere—which is increasingly possible in a wide variety of positions in a broad range of industries—it makes more sense to devote an extra two-plus hours per day to our work than to spend that time stuck in traffic, whether we have kids at home or not.

Given life’s realities and the fact that technology makes telecommuting a no-brainer for so many of us, I would argue that Mayer’s policy isn’t objectionable because it’s anti-family. It’s objectionable because it’s bad for business. I’m sure many employees at Yahoo were indeed abusing their work-from-home privileges. But why not deal with those employees directly, evaluating them on their contribution to the company instead of the location of their desk? If they’re unproductive out of the office, chances are they’ll be unproductive in the office too.

Mayer’s other argument—that more in-person collaboration is needed at Yahoo—could’ve been addressed in other ways as well, such as by limiting the number of work-from-home days and encouraging more on-site brainstorming. But even those measures wouldn’t guarantee that the desired teamwork and creativity would actually happen. Just as people working in the office can be less productive than people working elsewhere, people who work hours away from one another can be more collaborative than people working in adjacent cubicles. It depends on the people and the office culture.

But instead of addressing Yahoo’s very real problems head-on, Mayer issued a “no working from home, ever” policy that penalizes employees who can be productive, creative, and collaborative no matter where they work. The fact that Yahoo is in the business of convincing people to use technology wherever and whenever only makes the policy seem more outdated. Yes, Yahoo has every right to demand that its employees abide by the rules it establishes—and no, employees aren’t “entitled” to work from home—and yes, some people really do contribute more from the office. But revoking this benefit across the board may wind up creating more problems than it solves.

In my 15 years as a manager, I’ve supervised employees who almost never worked in the office but nevertheless made everyone feel they were there every day. Some were parents; some weren’t. I couldn’t have cared less whether any of them took an hour out of their day to take their daughter to dance class or their dad to the doctor. The fact that they worked late into the night and on weekends more than made up for whatever time they spent occasionally tending to personal responsibilities during the day—and made for happy, grateful, loyal employees who weren’t looking for the next opportunity to jump ship. If they were ever “absent” when they were needed or just didn’t seem like they were part of the team, I would’ve addressed that particular problem with them—just as I would have with in-office employees, who were given the same flexibility. But I never had to, because they were conscientious, hardworking grownups who didn’t need me to babysit them.

Embracing flexible work arrangements—to the extent possible while also ensuring that business goals are achieved—benefits all employees, not just mothers. And when we hold the opinion that these benefits should apply only to those of us who have kids, we breed hostility among our colleagues, which in turn impedes collaboration and success. Workers without kids resent us because they want the same flexibility for themselves, and they fault employers for playing favorites.

So let’s advocate for workplace flexibility for everyone, not just ourselves. The days of clear delineation between work and home are long gone in many professions. It’s common for employers to expect employees to answer emails around the clock and work late when deadlines loom or problems arise. Those same employees want and appreciate flexibility in return—and the great ones will more than repay the privilege in increased productivity, creativity, and loyalty.

Guest contributor Andrea Barbalich is an editorial and marketing consultant who has held senior positions at Meredith, iVillage, Scholastic, and other media companies. A nationally recognized expert in motherhood and women’s issues, she lives with her son in Westchester County, New York.

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  • Eliza Newman

    An outstanding article and very realistic point of view. As a woman – and mother – I couldn’t agree more.

    • Andrea Barbalich

      Thank you! I think it’s important to frame this as a work-life issue, not just a work-family issue. I’m glad you agree!

  • Wheat

    A round of applause to Andrea. Please write a book.

    • Andrea Barbalich

      Thanks! Maybe I will!

  • I’ve worked for several software companies over the years. Flexibility is key because there will be weeks before a release that require astonishingly long hours. The attitude seems to be that as long as the work gets done, no one much cares where or when. It’s healthy, it recognizes the juggling that we all have to do even if it does not exactly provide balance, and it treats employees like adults.

    Converesly, I worked at another company that had a policy similar to the one Yahoo just adopted. All it accomplished was to hemmorhage talent exhausted by a daily commute, and engender resentment for the irony of a future-focused company mired in an obsolete corporate culture.

    • Andrea Barbalich

      I agree with you and have seen the same things. I’ve always thought, as a manager, that if you have to babysit your staff, you have the wrong staff. Thanks for reading!

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