Workplace Flexibility Best for Both Employer, Employee

The Editorial Board

Perhaps it was unfair to place Marissa Mayer on a pedestal she never asked for. When the 37-year-old Google wunderkind convinced Yahoo! to make her the youngest Fortune 500 CEO — while she was pregnant, no less — she was preemptively hailed as a role model for working mothers. It seemed as though, finally, biases surrounding women in the workplace were beginning to fade.

But when Mayer returned to work after a mere two weeks of maternity leave, armed with an incredibly posh nursery installed next to her executive suite, it gave pause to those who had fashioned her as a pioneer. And this week, not long after being hired, she decreed that all employees would now be required to work from Yahoo! offices rather than from home, angering working parents who rely on their ability to work remotely to juggle their family and their career.

At first blush, the new policy does seem to make some sense. According to many analysts, Yahoo!’s culture had deteriorated in recent years, as the company stagnated while Google gobbled up its market share. Morale was at a low point, with many employees even launching startups while on the company’s time. And while Silicon Valley is known for its employee-friendly atmosphere — with perks such as free meals and on-campus laundry services increasingly becoming the norm — it’s an industry that relies on fast paced innovation and creativity that is best fostered through face-to-face interaction.

As the memo to employees announcing the new policy explains, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” a reminder that social interaction does feed innovation. While studies show that telecommuting improves efficiency and productivity, that isn’t what Mayer appears to be after — Yahoo! needs a breath of fresh air, and that sort of spark has been shown to come from employees interacting in close proximity.

Mayer’s mistake is in tackling this issue with a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a complex situation that cannot be solved by painting with a broad brush — telecommuting is simply a reality of today’s work environment with definitive benefits (studies have shown that employees who work from home are generally more satisfied), but interpersonal communication would seem to be key if Yahoo! hopes to turn its fortunes around. Yahoo! also has to be concerned with its reputation among potential employees. Mayer has repeatedly made hiring the best and brightest engineers available a top priority, and such a strict work environment may very well drive them to places like Google and Facebook (who are currently attracting better talent anyway).

Mayer will inevitably come off as seeming out of touch, the CEO with a penthouse atop the Four Seasons who assumes that everyone else will be able to simply make it work. It’s a policy that raises serious concerns about gender politics in the workplace, and while she may never have claimed to be (or even asked to be) anyone’s spokeswoman or role model, those concerns demand Mayer’s attention — not as a feminist icon, but as the CEO of a prominent corporation. It is her responsibility to acknowledge the condi- tions under which her employees live their lives, and to respond in a way that best enables them to flourish. The fact that she is a woman should make her even more acutely aware of that responsibility, but it’s not as though this is a burden being unfairly hoisted upon her because of her gender; such is life as a corporate executive.

Clearly there’s a need to find a middle ground, and a compromise shouldn’t be terribly difficult to find; this is an age marked by an unfathomable array of methods of communication, and technology has reached a point where employees can interact without actually being in the same room. Physical space of course should not be conflated with virtual space, but products from Skype to GoToMeeting still allow for greater flexibility. Yahoo! can place a greater emphasis on in-person interaction while not completely hamstringing those who need to work from home — for example, requiring employees to work from the office on only a certain number of days per week, or creating more structure among those who work from home to take care of their children. Or, hey, maybe Mayer can make some room in that nursery of hers.