Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer and a Big Step Backwards

Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! banned working from home. Why it was the wrong decision, and how it sends a dangerous signal.

Who'da thought she'd be the one setting back the cause of working parents?
Who’da thought she’d be the one setting back the cause of working parents?

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I’ve long believed that businesses would become much more flexible and progressive when it comes to work-family issues when those of my generation rose to positions of leadership.

Current 40-somethings are the first to grow up with dual-career couples for parents, while mostly being in dual-career marriages in their own lives. This generation of leaders is also more diverse and gender-equal than any that came before. This perspective, I’ve always thought, would finally lead to widespread understanding that workplace flexibility is not just a nice thing to do, but is good business- keeping step with our changing world improves a company’s ability to better attract and retain top talent.

The first nominee for poster child of this generation of leadership was Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo! (and former Google wunderkind), who made headlines as the youngest female CEO of a Fortune 500 company (and was named CEO while pregnant!). Many, including me, had high hopes for a fresh approach to leadership and for a CEO who would empathize with fellow working parents.

Well, Ms. Mayer has passed up the chance to champion workplace flexibility. In fact, she has probably set the movement back when she announced that Yahoo! employees will no longer be allowed to work from home. None of them.

Mayer’s is a patently dumb decision. It shouldn’t be telework for all or telework for none. The ability to telecommute should be based on the individual and the job. If an employee proves trustworthy and reliable, and performs a job for which telework is appropriate, then they should telecommute, at least some of the time (Mayer really needs to read my blog, especially this series of articles). Sub-optimal bosses reject telework because they fear they can no longer monitor employee performance and/or confuse being fair with treating everyone exactly the same. When used appropriately telework brings many benefits.

Mayer’s decision is on the wrong side of business history. 84 of the Fortune 100 companies allow part-time telecommuting. Over 20% of employees at such companies as SC Johnson, Qualcomm, Booz Allen, Fidelity, Cisco and Goldman Sachs telecommute. If they can allow for telecommuting, why can’t Yahoo?

Mayer’s decision is also an important step backwards. If the young, tech-savvy, new mother CEO (of an internet company, no less!!!) doesn’t recognize that work schedules can be arranged to accommodate family life (and not just the other way around, as evidenced by the nursery she built into her office suite), this gives license to all the “old school” management types to hold back the tide a little while longer.

Yahoo! employees lose, but, in a small way, so do the employees of many other companies. (or maybe there’s still hope, as the backlash has begun in earnest- see here, here and here)

For more on this topic, please read Lisa Belkin’s take at Huffpo and especially Neil Cohen’s brilliant take at Man on Third.

Your reactions? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

This piece originally appeared at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine, and will be the topic of my interview Friday morning for NPR’s Morning Edition.

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15 thoughts on “Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer and a Big Step Backwards

  1. This is a problem of poor management, not telecommuting. And looking at the latest yahoo site changes under this new CEO’s watch, I’d say it’s not the telecommuters who are the problem. The site is hideous. And the hypocrisy, don’t ask your employees to sacrifice and then flaunt the fact that you don’t have to

    • Olly- Agreed. It is entirely probably Yahoo had allowed work-from-home too indiscriminantly and without proper supervision. As you state, that is a culture and management problem, not a telework problem.
      After my years teaching MBAs and exec education, it never ceases to amaze me how little executive understand about the importance of workplace culture. I guess that’s why I still have a job to try to convince them!
      Thank you so much for rreading, and your excellent comment. I hope you return to the blog!

  2. WOW. I understand crisis management, and ‘all hands on deck’ to get a situation under control, but to show such lack of confidence in her employees so as to call for a ban on telecommuting……this is not someone I would want to work for.

    The image link is great, well done.

    • Debra- I agree! Telework for some- based on the job and the employees talents/track record. NOT telework for NONE or for all. I suspect Yahoo! had a problem with poorly managed telework and allowing it too indiscriminantly. However, you shouldn’t make such a blunt decision. Yahoo! likely has a much broader management and culture problem than a telework problem. And Mayer has got to get smarter about the symbolic ramifications of her decisions for the company culture. Thank you for reading and for your insightful comment

  3. I am concerned about the Knee Jerk reaction from the Work Family field which I have been part of for more than 30 years! I understand people’s surprise to Marissa’s Mayer’s decision to change policy to bring back all employees to the office. Each employee will have to make the choice whether this is OK with their life style… which is what many of us have worked for over the years in terms of Flexibility. But I think Ms Mayer has provoked a National Discussion about what is better for business – especially one in trouble… It is not a black and white issue. I am a researcher who works from home and actually understand her point about lack of collaboration and brainstorming can hurt the bottom line especially during hard times. The fact is that this CEO is provoking a National Discussion – that in my world is always good. We constantly need to revisit policies and adjust to the market place and societal norms. Now at least females and males have the examples of flexibility that has worked in so many companies. It is being re – examined in terms of innovation and brainstorming about new ideas….. I actually think Mayer may have some traction with this thought and see her as a pioneer who has made a controversial decision and standing by it. I think it is worth the discussion rather than simply nay-saying that she is setting Flexibility and control over one’s schedule behind….. Time to re-evaluate both as a society, culture and individuals if that is the best scenario for all – or rather an option amongst many on how corporations or workplaces should respond – especially in terms of a crisis mode of getting a culture back on track. Perhaps the phrase “All hands on Deck” might be appropriate and beneficial on all levels – then within a year or two that policy can be revisited. I would just caution us in the field – not to rush to judgement…. Yes, it is a new twist – but it has been new twists that tend to propel us forward…..

    • I hear what you are saying. This move has caused a lot of reaction, and, I admit, some has been too knee-jerk and strident.

      However, even without knowing the particulars at Yahoo! (and now at Best Buy), this “no telework” decision is attempting to fix a nuanced problem with a very blunt tool.

      However, I just read an article that sees things differently, and I bet the author is totally right-
      “Yahoo and Best Buy don’t just have ending their work-from-home programs in common. Can you see what else they have in common? That’s right…they both suck. Both companies were great and sitting on top of the world during the last decade. But they failed to evolve, missed major trends and are now mostly after-thoughts in the corporate world trying to do the now incredibly difficult task of a turnaround in fields that are moving at light speeds… Yahoo missed out on the social and mobile movement (that’s like missing out on the sun rising) while Best Buy is starting to look a lot more like Tower Records…

      So, what’s really going on?

      Yahoo and Best Buy are running out of levers to pull to show action to their Board, shareholders, whomever. Ending these programs is a huge Heisman to distract people from the real problems. They’ve tried re-organizations and brought in their “own” people. I’m sure there have been big new visions, bold strategies, countless All-Hands meetings and emails unveiling the “new” Yahoo/Best Buy etc. etc. but at the end of the day the needle isn’t moving fast enough so senior executives start to pull any lever available to them to shake things up.”

      I bet this is what is really going on. And this makes their “no telework” bans even worse in my eyes.

      thank you for reading and commenting! I hope you come back to the blog.

      • The Problem For more than a decade, the aengcies and departments of the federal government have been unable to meet the requirements of congressional legislation regarding the number of federal employees that telework. Compliance has been below 15 percent of congressional objectives. There is no enforcement or consequence to these failures. However, we do continue to pay the price by way of increasing transportation congestion, air pollution and gasoline consumption while reducing our competitiveness in creating new employment opportunities. Without a dramatic change in the way we approach remote working, the price will grow dramatically and soon include data breaches, cyber security failures, reduced emergency preparedness and ineffective continuity of operations planning efforts.There are a number of reasons cited for unfortunate telework performance and current legislation and initiatives reflect beliefs that only perseverance is required in order to achieve better results. Unfortunately, the disappointing telework achievement may not be just a matter of ‘trying harder’; rather, it might be a matter of examining alternative approaches and trying something different. Given the magnitude of the problems we face, teleworking as currently practiced does not work for enough of the people, enough of the time; it is inequitable; it lacks predictability; and insistence on rapid expansion in the federal workforce will require additional support and will introduce dramatically heightened security risks.Another serious apprehension with the federal government’s telework current methods is the open testimony by heads of aengcies and departments of its use as a key element in continuity of operations planning. Given the actual daily deployment of less than 2 percent of the federal workforce, unanticipated emergencies (unlike snow day predictions) in all likelihood will require ‘evacuation’ as a first level of response. The ‘hope’ in these cases is that federal employees will successfully arrive home, have commercial power, integrous internet services and will plug in their laptops to continue working.It is time to have a thoughtful discussion on alternative approaches.

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