Banning telecommuting at Yahoo! and women CEOs

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When Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home at the company, everyone from working moms to Richard Branson piled on saying the decision was a terrible one. The resulting debate and coverage from news organizations around the country makes for interesting reading.

It seems that nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter, so let’s look at a few.

First, there was the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who writes that while Mayer had to make a tough decision, her money and ability to build a nursery next to her office made life easier for her.

It flies in the face of tech companies’ success in creating a cloud office rather than a conventional one. Mayer’s friend Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote in her new feminist manifesto, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” that technology could revolutionize women’s lives by “changing the emphasis on strict office hours since so much work can be conducted online.”

She added that “the traditional practice of judging employees by face time rather than results unfortunately persists” when it would be more efficient to focus on results.

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.

The dictatorial decree to work “side by side” had some dubbing Mayer not “the Steinem of Silicon Valley” but “the Stalin of Silicon Valley.”

Mayer and Sandberg are in an elite cocoon and in USA Today, Joanne Bamberger fretted that they are “setting back the cause of working mothers.” She wrote that Sandberg’s exhortation for “women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps” is damaging, as is “Mayer’s office-only work proclamation that sends us back to the pre-Internet era of power suits with floppy bow ties.”

Counter to that point was a CBS commentator:

CBS News contributor and analyst Mellody Hobson said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has “a real turnaround on her hands,” and said the new edict is “smart,” not “ruthless.”

“She’s looking at the situation saying ‘I need innovation to change this company.’ And ones of the things that drives innovation is collaboration. People working next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, coming up with ideas,” Hobson explained Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”

“She’s saying you can’t build a culture via email,” Hobson said of Mayer’s effort to bolster the Yahoo community. “She needs these people in the office.”

Hobson went on to address common misconceptions about telecommuters, saying “The average person who telecommutes is a 40-year-old male. We think of it as a stay-at-home mom,” she said, but added that that is only one type of telecommuter.

A Boston Globe piece by Deborah Kotz invoked a new study showing that working from home increased productivity, but may ultimately hamper your ability to be promoted.

The Stanford University study of 249 call center workers at a Chinese travel agency found that those who were randomly selected to work from home four days a week for nine months — after they volunteered to do so — experienced a 13 percent increase in their work performance.

The improvement came mainly from a 9 percent increase in the number of minutes worked during their shifts due to a reduction in breaks and sick-days taken. The remaining 4 percent came from an increase in the number of calls home workers took per minute worked, compared with those in the control group who weren’t selected to work at home.

Home workers also had more job satisfaction and were also less likely to quit their positions during the study. And the company saved about $2,000 per year for each employee who worked at home. (Reduced costs is one of the reasons federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health have strongly encouraged employees to work at home at least one day each week.)

Despite all of these work gains, however, the study also found an important downside to working at home: It reduced rates of promotion by 50 percent when measured against job performance. While those who worked at home had about the same number of promotions as those who worked on site, they should have had more considering how much extra work they performed.

No matter how you feel about the situation, Businessweek points out that Mayer’s decision is getting more attention because she’s the female head of a technology company, many of which are known for flexible work policies.

The tiny sisterhood of women CEOs who have made it to the top of technology companies (and non-tech companies for that matter) can attest to the difficulty of running a huge corporation when even the most banal strategic move is picked apart so obsessively. Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo and Autodesk (ADSK), enjoyed similar treatment while she was CEO of Yahoo, most notably inviting ridicule for her un-ladylike habit of dropping the f-bomb. Carly Fiorina, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) from 1999 to 2005, confronted constant peanut-gallery analysis of her hair and her mannerisms by a business press that both glorified her and tore her down. Like Mayer, these women were trying to turn around complicated companies badly in need of new ideas.

No one knows whether the decision to require all Yahoo employees to work in an office will prove to be positive or negative for the company; it may be personally disastrous for some of the individuals affected and the best thing that ever happened to others. But if one of the hundreds of men running American companies had made a similar move, it’s unlikely that anyone would have even noticed.