Yahoo! — An Edict, a Trend or a PR disaster

By now, pretty much everyone has read about CEO @Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting at @Yahoo!, with the exception of waiting for a delivery truck or a service call.  She did this at the same time she built a nursery next door to her office for her new baby.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo

Marissa Mayer & Macallister

Opinions about this edict vary depending on your gender, whether you’re a mother, or if you think working from home is the best idea ever.  More importantly, it probably depends on whether your commuting situation or family structure requires someone being at home for at least part of the week.  It’s not always easy to change those plans overnight.  

If you, somehow, haven’t picked up on this story, here is some background:

I am of two minds about this debate.  I have never been a big fan of working from home for two reasons.  First, unless the snow was falling at an inch an hour or the roads were flooded, I really preferred going in to the office.  Why?  For precisely the reason that Mayer gave for cancelling telecommuting at Yahoo!: the synergy that arises when people work together.  When employees spend time with one another, they build camaraderie, share ideas, brainstorm, innovate, solve problems, and support one another.  

I enjoyed that synergy and it helped to do better work.  Second, I find being at home too distracting.  When you’re alone, it’s just too easy to put a load of laundry into the washer or start dinner in the slow cooker instead of tackling that tough assignment or dull research.  For me, at least, the things that must be done around the home press on me and keep me from focusing on my work.  It’s much easier to sit in an office where work is the total object of your concentration.

But there can be no doubt that this announcement was a public relations disaster for both Mayer and Yahoo!.  It could have, and should have, been done better.  Her HR and PR departments could have given her better advice.  Maybe they did and she chose to ignore their recommendations.  It wouldn’t be the first time a CEO decided he/she knew best, to the despair of the experts.  The crux of the issue is less the policy itself than the hypocrisy of dissing working moms at Yahoo! by limiting their options, while simultaneously exercising a CEO’s perks to take care of yourself.

Corporate daycare
I don’t blame Mayer for building the nursery.  If men had babies, this approach would be de rigueur for a CEO.  Heck, Executive Nanny would be an accepted corporate job description.   And I don’t think her decision was wrong.  When a company is in trouble, you need to circle the wagons, get your best talent motivated, and fix the problems.  Everyone needs to pitch in and make that turnaround their top priority.

Here are some ideas on how it could have been handled differently:

  • Create separate classes.  (1) No more telecommuting on demand for anyone who wants to do so.  You must have a good, documented reason to work from home.  (2) Deliveries, service calls, etc. are specific one-time events scheduled at the discretion of the employee.  (3) Mothers/fathers can work from home (x) days a week but must be in the office for the rest of the time.
  • Phase it in.The new rule applies to most employees immediately.Deliveries, service calls, etc. are specific one-time events at the discretion of the worker.Mothers/fathers have (x) number of weeks to find daycare before having to report to work every day.
  • Plan to help other working parents.Announce that, as soon as Yahoo reaches a certain level of revenue, some form of daycare support will become available, whether it’s a subsidy or a corporate daycare center.
It’s all formula under the bridge now, of course, but there’s no doubt Mayer’s action has thrown some fear into working parents at other organizations.  When a high-profile CEO at a brand-name company takes such a controversial action, other executives look at it and wonder whether they should do the same thing.  While Yahoo has responded by saying that this isn’t a broad industry trend, it “is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now,” the very fact that they had to say it is tells us that the concern exists.  And for good reason.  American business loves trends and executives have proven eager to jump on the bandwagon of a new trend, whether it’s “lean and mean” or chainsaw layoffs, or foosball games.  But they like layoffs a lot more than foosball.

It’s too early to know whether Mayer has created a trend, a problem for Yahoo! or the answer to the company’s problems.  Let’s check back in around the time Macallister is walking and see.

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