Marissa Mayer: What’s Good for the Goose …?
In February, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer issued an internal memo throughout the company abruptly announcing the end of their work-from home policy. Outraged employees leaked the memo to the press, and Mayer came under considerable criticism for the decision. Telecommuting has become a key component in the success of many tech companies over the years by allowing greater flexibility in the lives of employees, particularly those with children who are adversely affected by the staggering cost of child care services. Even more problematic was Mayer’s refusal to comment on the policy shift, stating via a spokesperson that Yahoo! does not discuss internal matters with the press. However, during the closing keynote address at last Thursday’s Great Place to Work conference at the Hyatt Regency Century City in Los Angeles, Mayer finally broke her silence on the controversial decision, stating that telecommuting has been “… wrongly perceived as an industry narrative,” and that it’s “… not what’s right for Yahoo right now.”
While telecommuting has not been universally adopted by the tech industry, dozens of companies have acknowledged its value in boosting productivity while lowering costs. Nearly 10% of U.S. workers — roughly 13.4 million people — perform their duties remotely at least one day a week, according to a 2010 Census Bureau report cited by Fortune magazine in an article last month. It’s hard to refute the claim that people are more productive and inspired to innovate when they’re working together in the same physical space, but for Mayer to claim that telecommuting isn’t an “industry narrative” is erroneous at best, as it would seem readily apparent based upon the data that it very much is. Whether it’s a narrative she agrees with for her struggling company is a different story.
Companies such as Best Buy have recently adopted similar policies, and most of them have one thing in common: they have all fallen on hard times, and are looking for ways to maintain an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This is a policy born out of desperation, not out of progress, made all the more apparent by statement issued by a Yahoo spokesman back in February, one that stands in sharp contrast to Mayer’s recent remarks: “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.”
Proponents of the decision argue that the problem lies not in the policy change itself, but in the way it was delivered to employees. “Had Mayer announced the policy publicly and more elegantly … she could have avoided the brouhaha,” claimed writer Patricia Sellers in defense of Mayer when the change was announced. True enough, but equating an avoidance of controversy with moral justification doesn’t and shouldn’t let Mayer off the hook. As a young mother herself, Mayer would absolutely be affected by such a change in policy if the tables were turned.
Mayer spent extensive time working from home before and after giving birth to a son last summer, and while, according to Sellers, she is often seen bringing her son to the office, it seems likely that the $1.1 million dollar bonus she received in early March, combined with her $1 million annual salary and $56 million in long-term stock options, serve quite well in assuaging the burden of child care costs, which reached an average annual cost of $12,000 in 2011. Sellers reports that Yahoo! managers are already advocating for exceptions to be made to the new policy, but it is unknown at this time whether working parents will be able to apply for exemption or not.
The female CEO is a rare breed in the corporatocracy, and as such is often closely scrutinized by the media. Expected to be equal parts Gloria Steinem and Nelson Rockefeller, she is required to walk a fine line between empathy and ambition. Mayer’s policies have earned her considerable favor in the business world thus far, where she has a reputation of being tough, but fair. But there’s an undeniable taint of hypocrisy in Mayer’s decision to end Yahoo’s telecommuting culture, one that will doubtlessly solidify her reputation as a ruthless corporatist in the male-dominated upper echelons of the business world, while at the same time distancing her from the legacy of women’s liberation that helped pave the road to her success. It’s often said that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but only time will tell if the only thing Mayer’s done with this decision is lay an egg.
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