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Yahoo Inc Chief Executive Marissa Mayer attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, in this January 25, 2013 file photo. Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting sparked outrage around the country, but left many in Silicon Valley wondering what the fuss was all about. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)
Yahoo Inc Chief Executive Marissa Mayer attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, in this January 25, 2013 file photo. Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting sparked outrage around the country, but left many in Silicon Valley wondering what the fuss was all about. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)

Marissa Mayer's work from home ban and the dilemma of successful women Add to ...

When Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo Inc., had a baby, she built a nursery next to her office so she could log longer hours. But imagine if, rather than installing a nursery for one, Mayer proposed on-site daycare for all?

Instead of moving the company toward work-life balance policies that would benefit everyone, Yahoo recently issued a decree ending remote work for all employees. The memo from HR was leaked by Kara Swisher on the website All Things D, and reads, in part: “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” The edict reportedly applies not only to full-time teleworkers but also to employees with standing arrangements to work one or two days a week from home. It ends with a final condescending jab: “And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.”

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Said collaborative spirit seemed entirely absent when this draconian measure came down, but the cable-guy line expresses a fundamental misconception: telework is shirking. Those who work at home are playing Minecraft and chatting with home repair dudes on the company dime. Myopic managers see telework as a perk, though it’s really a necessity for many employees, as it should be for employers. And how disheartening to watch Mayer – an iconic success story in a male-dominated industry – put forth a decision that’s so lousy for women (and men and kids and productivity and the environment). Mayer managed to come up with an office situation that suits her own needs as a working mother, and then effectively abandoned hundreds of employees who had forged arrangements that work for their own lives.

Of course this sweeping gesture is a ship-steering effort from a floundering company; new management usually instigates dramatic change to please shareholders, no matter how shortsighted. But several studies blow holes in the notion that telework sacrifices “speed and productivity.” Stanford researchers followed call-centre employees at a Chinese travel agency for nine months and found that working remotely actually generated a 13-per-cent performance increase. In a high turnaround industry, the remote workers reported higher levels of satisfaction and were less inclined to quit. The fact that Yahoo is a tech company makes the old-school mentality all the more bizarre: We want you to not use the very thing we’re building.

Back when I had a straight job, I learned quickly that my distractible, coffee-break-prone nature means I’m much more productive surrounded by books at home than people in an office. The time I saved by not attending pointless meetings meant I churned out reams of work for my employers. But most significantly, I no longer had to drop my little kids at daycare at 7:30 a.m. and pick them up at 6. Regaining hours lost to a commute was huge for our family, and kept this worker a happy bee. For those Yahoo employees who negotiated remote arrangements, pulling that agreement is akin to removing health or dental benefits. It’s unethical, and morale-shattering.

Mayer can’t be expected to represent her gender in every move she makes as CEO, but it’s symbolically brutal that a woman reaches rarely scaled corporate heights and then immediately eradicates work flexibility, an arrangement so many women rely on to stay in the working world. Perversely, Mayer is, in fact, leading by example: Colleagues refer to her as a notorious workaholic. Hired when five months pregnant, she famously took a two-week maternity leave and built that nursery, personal decisions that now read like a giant “I’ve-got-mine” shrug.

Mayer’s contemporary in the glass-ceiling-breaking upper echelons of Silicon Valley is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. In some ways, Sandberg, a mother of two known for leaving work at 5:30 p.m., is Mayer’s opposite. She has described herself as feminist; Mayer once said she was “gender blind.” In a soon-to-be-released book called Lean In, Sandberg addresses the working-woman bind head-on, acknowledging that women are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels of corporate culture. Sandberg urges women to be more assertive in the workplace and form “Lean-In Circles,” self-improvement and professional bonding sessions – your mom’s consciousness-raising group, now with iPads.

Perhaps philosophically at odds when it comes to the unresolved issues around women and work, Sandberg and Mayer share a very American, individualist ethos which amounts to: Pull up those bootstraps, ladies. I suppose it’s something like progress that a privileged, high-paid executive oblivious to the realities of workers’ lives can be female, too.

Like it or not, the public nature of Mayer’s position means the world is watching her. She has power to make some real system changes. Removing flexibility is terrible for all employees in 2013, but may in particular hinder the careers of many women, who are usually the first to feel the crunch when the real world impinges on work. It’s great that Mayer has climbed so high, but why pull the ladder up behind her?

Follow on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

 

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