I couldn’t possibly write about being a working mom this week without honing in on Marissa Mayers and her decision to disallow all Yahoo employees from working at home, whether they have a full or part-time telecommuting schedule, or just need a day to be at home to wait for the refrigerator repair guy and could get some work accomplished in the quiet of their kitchen.
I have a lot to say on this matter.
First and foremost, of course, the story didn’t start with this pronouncement. The story started over the summer when Mayers accepted the CEO position at Yahoo and about five minutes later announced she was pregnant with her first child.
I have no problem with this, in theory. I don’t think women should have to hide their pregnancies in order to job search (or be recruited.) An employee who is good enough to hire is good enough to hire even if she needs a three-month parental leave soon after being hired. Employers who want to recruit and retain top talent should not be eliminating a large portion of their potential employee pool based on gender and age.
And having a top Internet company hire a woman for its top position was exciting. There was much buzz about what Mayers might bring to the table for Yahoo, a flailing operation.
But then she made her first pronouncement to make working mothers all over the country wince. She announced that she planned to come back to work after a two-week leave.
The outcry was deafening. Working mothers in the blogosphere lamented her lack of understanding as to what it takes, not only to recover physically from childbirth, but to learn how to take care of an infant, and make the necessary adjustments and changes in one’s life when a baby enters the picture. There was a lot of online snickering, because those of us who have been there, know that two weeks spent answering email after having a baby and then a full-time return to work is just not tenable. And that’s when everything goes well and everyone is healthy.
Thankfully she had a healthy baby. And she came back after two weeks. I am sure she has a lot of staff to help her with her adjustments, and apparently her priority at the moment is the one that places her in the corporate spotlight. Well, we all know that, in fact, the infant stage is one of the easiest parenting stages to manage (at least if you have a night nurse and are getting some sleep.) Infants only need their mommies to love and hug and feed them and keep them safe and warm. No homework, no school or friend drama, no learning how to ride a bike, or drive a car. You can ease into those things, I suppose.
So while not a boon for women having babies, I wasn’t too bent out of shape about Mayers’ maternity leave. I do wish she had set a more contemporary example of how to be a top flight corporate executive and mom, but maybe that will come with time.
But the total elimination of the option of working from home, including for those employees whose initial contracts included work-from-home clauses – now that’s a reason to jeer.
I have read a number of articles about this over the past 10 days, and even listened to NPR’s Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal make snide comments about the proposal (in the form of pretending to call a colleague, who wasn’t at her desk, and was “working from home.” He made it sound like it was an echo chamber and she would never return his call. Steam came from my ears.)
There is no question in my mind that there are many jobs for which working at home is not an option – teachers, truck drivers, waiters, police officers, flight attendants, pilots, doctors (unless they have a home office), grocery cashiers, receptionists, nuclear power plant operators – are just a few that come to mind.
But for those of us who toil in the land of white-collar office work, technology has afforded us many new ways in which to work from home. And there are so many obvious advantages to allowing employees to work remotely:
- higher employee satisfaction
- focused writing and project time
- no time lost to difficult commutes
- work/life balance
- environmentally sound
- fewer meetings and distractions
Of course, there are hurdles to managing a successful work-from-home experience, for both the employee and the employer. The employee must be motivated, not easily distracted by laundry piles and other nagging house chores, able to work independently, technologically savvy enough to use tools remotely, and nimble enough to participate in multiple conversations and meetings via conference call, Skype, email and phone.
Employers must first and foremost trust their employees and believe that they are indeed, working at home. They must be able to manage the oversight of their employees’ workloads remotely, and not try to micromanage in order to satisfy their own nervousness about the situation. And they must be able to call on their employees’ when they need to in order to respond to late-breaking issues rising up at the office.
Of course, while the quiet and independence of a work-at-home situation is wonderful for some, there is also something lost in the lack of human interaction and in-the-hallways conversations that create a creative and dynamic work team. This seems to be what Mayers believes is missing from the portion of the Yahoo staff that are not in the office, and she wants them back in the fray in order to garner the very best she can from them in a human, interactive dynamic.
As I write these words, I believe that there is probably some merit in what she is trying to accomplish. And I do enjoy the team dynamic that exists in an office setting, and benefit from it. But one of the most wonderful changes in the work world that has come to pass over the nearly 30 years I have been working is the ability to work flexibly and from many places, including my in-laws’ house, my local coffee bar and my home office … or even my dining room table.
Can’t jobs be set up to do both – work from home at times, and play in the office sandbox at others? Does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition?
I would not return to a soul-crushing week of 9-hour days in an office with florescent lights above for anything. I love my job, which requires me to be out and about, meeting with people in my community, taking donors to lunch, and feeling the ground under my feet. I often say that, as a fundraiser, if I’m at my desk, I’m not doing my job. And that desk time that I do need to put in can be done from anywhere. It’s only when I’m managing people and their needs that I need to be more physically present
I know I’m lucky because I have a great job that allows me enormous flexibility. And I try to pay it forward by enabling those who work for me to enjoy some of that flexibility as well, so long as their job allows it. But I bet that there are a lot of Yahoo employees who could say the same – that their work-from-home ability is part of what draws them to their jobs, and to lost it would make them lose their incentive to work for that company.
I think Mayers and Yahoo will ultimately lose out on talented people, who will decide that flexibility and trust is much more important to them than working for one particular company. I don’t know if she will find the creative energy returning to the halls of Yahoo sufficiently to merit her sweeping change. Only time will allow us a window into the answer to that question.
I think that Mayers is going to find herself under incredible scrutiny – as a CEO, as a manager who is raging against the tide of today’s workforce, and as a mother who, as of yet, has not had to make a whole lot of the daily life adjustments most of us are forced to make, in order to accomplish her life’s work.
If Mayers was a man, little if any of this conversation would be happening. No one would even know if Yahoo’s CEO had children, because his wife would be busy with them. But Mayers is a woman, and a mother, and a reluctant role model for working women. I hope as she gets her feet wet, she finds that bearing those three mantles forces her into her own sphere of more creative thinking about how to manage and juggle all that is required of her.
Coming soon: Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” So happy to have a plethora of high-powered corporate women to talk about and learn from these days!
Photo by Sean MacEntee via Flickr