Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

When an internal memo was leaked earlier this week detailing that Yahoo was no longer allowing its employees to work remotely, the news was met with an uproar.

Richard Branson, Virgin Group Founder, called it “perplexing and backwards,” while a blogger from The New York Times wrote it was “blow to work-family balance.” One work place flexibility advocate thought Yahoos’s policy rollback was so outdated and wrong-headed, she compared it with allowing smokers back into the office.

Above all, many were shocked that Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, who had her first child last September, would ban telecommuting. As the mother of an infant, who is juggling the needs of her newborn child with the intense demands of her job, shouldn’t she understand the need for a flexible work environment better than anyone?

Mayer: Pulling The Ladder Up Behind Her?

Underlying the critique was the notion that Mayer was guilty of reaching the top spot, then pulling the ladder up behind her. Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita of women’s history at the University of California, told The New York Times:

“The irony is that she has broken the glass ceiling, but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing their skills and career.”

Maureen Dowd, who devoted this week’s column to the issue, wrote:

“Many women were appalled at the Yahoo news, noting that Mayer, with her penthouse atop the San Francisco Four Seasons, her Oscar de la Rentas and her $117 million five-year contract, seems oblivious to the fact that for many of her less-privileged sisters with young children, telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life.”

Benefits of a Flexible Work Environment

There are numerous studies that have explored the benefits policies such as telework, flexible hours, compressed workweeks, and reduced schedules can bring both to workers and to their companies.

The New York Times reports:

“Research has found that both men and women want workplace flexibility, and both are more satisfied when workplaces have flexible policies in place. Employers often assume that workers offered workplace flexibility will take advantage of it in the negative sense; but research, again, hasn’t supported that assumption.”

Telecommuting: Good for Productivity, Bad for Creativity

If flexibility is good for business, why isn’t Mayer, who is struggling to pull Yahoo out of a long slump, supporting it? Blame Google. Mayer, who was Google’s 20th employee and its first female engineer, is attempting to replicate the work environment of her former employer, which offers things like free lunches, onsite gyms and dry cleaners, in order to keep employees on campus, working, and interacting with each other.

John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, told The New York Times, “If you want innovation, then you need interaction. If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

Google explicitly designs its campus to encourage onsite collaboration because it benefits creativity. Mayer is taking a page out of the Google playbook.

Women Leaders: Damned If You Do and Doomed If You Don’t

Though the general trend in many companies is to allow workers more flexibility, many companies are, like Yahoo, rolling back flextime policies. Last year, Bank of America reduced the number of employees that were allowed to work remotely. Yet, that move hardly made news. So why did Yahoo’s policy change make the front page of national newspapers? Because she is a woman and a mom.

Is that fair? Hardly.

Women at work are commonly perceived as too soft or too tough. It is what a Catalyst report calls: The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t. Marrisa Mayer is in a double bind, and it seems that few are giving her the benefit of the doubt.

According to reports, several Yahoo employees have said that Marissa Mayer is in crisis mode, and she believes that terminating telecommuting is essential if there’s any chance to get Yahoo back on track.

Michael Schrage, in a piece for the Harvard Business Review blog, writes:

“I take Mayer at her word that she wants to promote the values of “collaborative opportunism” and “opportunistic collaboration” at the “new” Yahoo. That should be a leader’s prerogative. I similarly don’t doubt Mayer knows full well that there’s no shortage of technology enabling high bandwidth, highly functional, high impact collaboration across time zones and zip codes alike. My bet is that, sooner rather than later, the truly productive/high impact employees with special needs will enjoy a locational flexibility that their lesser will not.”

Echoing that sentiment, Maureen Dowd writes:

“Mayer’s bold move looks retro and politically incorrect, but she may feel the need to reboot the company culture, harness creativity, cut deadwood and discipline slackers before resuming flexibility.”

Yahoo is struggling, and Mayer is making a tough call that she believes will benefit her company. Putting the additional burden of upholding all of women’s workplace progress on her shoulders is unfair, to say the least.

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