In Defense of Marissa Mayer

Speaking as a working mother who has an extremely flexible schedule I realize it’s going to be a bit odd that I believe Marissa Mayer is doing exactly what needs to be done in removing work-from-home privileges in her organization.

Marissa Mayer’s job is not to be nice to people, her job is to turn around the behemoth that is Yahoo!. By its very function Yahoo! wants to compete with Google, and in its present state it is not able to do so. For big change you need big projects, for big projects you need lots of people working together, and as many of us recall from our formative developer years that means hallway meetings and late night in the office and pizza and early morning scrum sessions. While your work from home days may make *you* more productive, how more productive does it make *your team* — or your project? How many things get held up for “the next time you’re in office”? It’s interesting to note that the interviewee about this issue in this morning’s NPR story was a work-from-home lawyer mother, who spent the first 2 minutes describing how close the washer and dryer were to her desk, and how working from home was more convenient because she could get laundry done and walk the dog. How exactly does this further the company she works for?

It should be noted that the memo indicated people would still be able to take time to “stay at home for the cable guy”. This is not a draconian “you must be at your desk from 9am-5pm every day” mandate, this is good common business sense: work gets done in the office — please be in the office to do it.

Much has been made of the fact that Mayer, as a new mother, built a nursery in her executive suite, which some choose to point to as a double-standard. I disagree. Mayer paid for the nursery with her own money and it means she herself as a working mother will be in-office. Most of us don’t have office (or cubicle) space big enough to install a nursery in, but that (office space) is a function of title and position, and not of preferential treatment. You want to bring your kid to work? Fork up the money to install a nursery in your cube, or, more practically, don’t bring your kid to work. Mayer is using her own funds, of which we can assume she has plenty (relative to her title), to bring her kid to work. For *her* this decision is likely as practical as it is practicable: having made the declaration people need to be in-office, she’s doing so as well. The fact that she can pay to have her kid be there with her (presumably attended to by a nanny or other caregiver) is irrelevant.

Then there is the point that this declaration will harm Yahoo!’s chances in hiring new talent. There’s an inverse to this, too: those working remotely or from home for Yahoo! can choose to work elsewhere. If you’re that good, make a case for an exception, or get a job with a company that will let you work from home. If you’re not that good, you don’t really have a leg to stand on; work to get to be that good. And one of the perks in working for Google (ostensibly Yahoo!’s competitor model) is that there are all sorts of services and amenities *on site*, designed to keep you on campus. Google does not seem to have difficulty recruiting talent; so the rationale is that this ban on permanent work from home will not harm Yahoo!’s chances of getting quality staffers — Yahoo!’s reputation for innovation (or lack of it) will.

As further opinions weigh in, many ex-Yahoo!ians are coming forward to indicate Mayer is making the right decision, because there’s credible evidence that the work-from-home policy was abused, and oftentimes there were people still being paid and essentially not doing anything. It should also be noted that free food and iPhones (and other Google-esque amenities) were offered to in-house employees. Yahoo! has a managerial problem, not a problem with its CEO. As a manager of nearly 200 people and 4 levels, I know that you need to be able to tell via metrics or deliverables if work is getting done. And if it isn’t, you advise, you re-advise, you warn, you re-warn, and then you fire. It’s called “employment”, not “charity”.

Many are worried about “what this means” for other companies. Dire forebodings about how we’re going back to “the dark ages” and the images of Office Space and 9 to 5 come to mind. While it may be true that other companies follow suit, they will have to make the same trade-offs and analysis Yahoo! did: do we need to institute dramatic change, at a potential morale hit and/or dip in prospective employee attractiveness, in order to survive? If the answer is yes then the move is logical. The notion that a company would voluntarily undergo these hits for the benefit of “following the lead of Yahoo!” however is asinine: companies make decisions based on what they need for their company.

Full disclosure: quite a few people on my teams work from home. Many have flexible schedules. I don’t eyeball when people are in the office and indeed if you walk by mine you’ll often see I’m not there (I’m in about 36 meetings in a given week, too). That said, I have a pretty robust framework of reporting and can point easily to the productivity of each person on the team, as well as the quality of the production and the timeliness of it. I don’t need to institute a “Mayer Policy”, because I do not have the same problems Marissa Mayer does.

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