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Another View: Working at home takes a hit from Yahoo

7:46 PM, Mar. 3, 2013  |  Comments
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, a Wausau native.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, a Wausau native.
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If you burrowed into the home office earlier this week instead of braving the snow and sleet to get to your cubicle, you might have paused to give thanks that you don't work for Marissa Mayer.

The Yahoo CEO, America's most famous working mom, became America's most famous monster boss after issuing a no-more-telecommuting edict. Starting in June, employees who have been allowed to work from home will be required to report to Yahoo's offices instead. So much for that 21st century no-walls workplace.

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," says the famously leaked company memo. "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with being physically together."

Mayer had to know the decision wouldn't be popular with employees who have enjoyed working close to their families (or far from their colleagues). Working moms in particular - and not just the ones who work at Yahoo - consider the new policy a betrayal.

Those moms thought they had a champion in Mayer, who was hired away from rival Google last year when she was five months pregnant. The struggling Yahoo needed a turnaround agent, and it didn't matter that the top candidate was also a mother-to-be.

That shouldn't be such a big deal by now. Since 1978, it has been illegal to discriminate against workers who are or may become pregnant. But women who are passed over for a job or promotion often wonder if they've been discounted professionally because they have kids, or because they might later. Instead of being herded onto the old "mommy track," though, Mayer became head of a Fortune 500 company.

She didn't exactly strike a blow for home/work balance, though, when she returned to the job two weeks after her son was born, setting up a nursery right next to her office so she could keep putting in the workaholic hours. Now she's hauling everyone back into the office, taking away the flexibility that allows other moms (and dads) to juggle job and kids.

All that juggling has apparently taken a toll at Yahoo. Collaborative innovation is what the company is all about, and three years of declining revenues suggest that email and Skype just aren't cutting it.

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings," the leaked memo says. This isn't heresy, even in Silicon Valley. Many of the technologies that enable us to work remotely were developed by people who eat, nap, play video games and do their laundry at the office. That relentless togetherness fosters synergy. Being able to throw in a load of whites while working at home does not.

Many of us are grateful for the flexibility to work at home, at least occasionally. About 1 in 4 U.S. workers logged some hours from home last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a Harris Interactive survey last year, 1 in 3 ranked the ability to work from home higher than perks such as a company car.

It's easy to see why: Working at home saves commuting time (and gas). Employees can interrupt a task to attend a parent-teacher conference and finish up after dinner, instead of taking an afternoon off. They can wear sweatpants instead of office attire; they can walk the dog instead of taking a Starbucks break. Why should it matter where they work, as long as they're getting the job done?

The problem at Yahoo is that they're not getting the job done. Mayer was hired to fix that. Some employees and former employees have stepped forward to defend her decision, saying there are too many slackers who abuse the work-from-home privilege, often at their co-workers' expense.

Studies may show that employees who work at home are more productive than those who don't, but if that were the case at Yahoo, we don't think a Silicon Valley veteran like Mayer would mess with success. So let's all take a deep breath. This sounds like a course correction at Yahoo, not a giant step backward for all of us.

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