Marissa Mayer, bounding back to work after a two-week maternity leave, came up with a nifty solution for juggling work and family: The Yahoo chief brought her family to work.
Literally. The 37-year-old CEO, named to the job when she was six months pregnant, used her own money to build a nursery next to her office. Good for her. Baby-in-adjoining-cubicle is not a scalable solution, but Mayer is, for the moment anyway, unique -- the first woman to give birth while heading a Fortune 500 company.
But Mayer's self-bestowed flexibility made the news that Yahoo is cracking down on work-from-home arrangements especially disappointing.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," Yahoo human resources chief Jackie Reses wrote in a memo obtained by Kara Swisher of the website allthingsd.com.
"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," the memo continued. "We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together."
Yahoo graciously granted dispensation, sort of, for wait-for-the-cable guy emergencies, although, even then, employees were lectured to "use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration." Like what -- you wait Tuesday afternoon and if he doesn't show, I'll go to your house and wait for the guy Wednesday morning?
How ironic that a technology company, dedicated to enabling connectivity, would enforce such a retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict. It reflect a bricks-and-mortar mindset in an increasingly cyber world. How depressing that this edict comes from a female CEO, albeit a seemingly bionic one. You have to wonder whether this is Mayer demonstrating she is as tough -- or as boneheaded -- as any guy.
Working from home isn't just a girl thing -- nearly as many men as women work from home, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed, it isn't just a parent thing. But it is an important tool in the arsenal of parental juggling and parental sanity.
This is not to argue that every employee should be able to work at home, every day. Of course not. Some jobs obviously lend themselves to telecommuting better than others. Working from home does not mean doing without child care when the kids are little and would be too distracting.
Nor is it a license for slacking off, as some commentary has suggested was happening at Yahoo. But the solution is not a blanket ban -- it's better management, and better metrics for judging productivity.
Likewise, Yahoo is certainly correct in its intuition that "some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."
True. They also come in the shower, when you're sleeping, while you're walking the dog. And they come from employees who aren't stressed about what their teenagers are up to when they come home from school to an empty house, or who are exhausted from battling lengthy Silicon Valley commutes. They come from employees who feel grateful for being trusted with the responsibility of self-direction.
I have a stake in this argument because I am lucky to have a job that lets me work from home most of the time. As I write this column, my teenage daughter is sleeping upstairs -- strep, again! If I had to be at the office, I could leave her, but how much better to be able to bring her soup and tea.
Working from home, I have interviewed senators while making the bed, listened to campaign conference calls while emptying the dishwasher (thank goodness for the mute button), talked to White House officials while driving carpool (thank goodness for Bluetooth).
Even when I had a position that required more face-time in the office, the technology-fueled ability to work at times from home made all the difference; I was more productive than I would have been chained to my desk, not less. I am no super mommy, but the flexibility of working at home has allowed me to cling, however tenuously, to the level of adequate mommy.
Yahoos are safe until June, when the new policy is to take effect. My prediction? It won't, in its current, draconian form. Mayer is smart enough to realize this was a real Yahoo move -- and not the kind that comes with an exclamation point at the end of the word.