Can’t Do My Home Work Anymore?

Yahoo!’s new female CEO, Marissa Mayer, has drawn harsh criticism with her announcement that Yahoo! employees no longer will be permitted to work from home.  Critics have called her decision everything from an overreaction, to bad for business, to (most cuttingly) a betrayal of working women everywhere.  In a leaked memo to Yahoo! staff on February 22, the company explained its reasoning: “We need to be working side-by-side…. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Yahoo!’s new policy.  First, some studies have shown that workers are more productive when they can work from home.  For example, a University of Texas study concluded that telecommuters typically work 5-7 more hours per week than employees who schlep to the office every day.

Second, flexible work-at-home policies can make it much easier for parents to balance work and family.  Many big companies, Yahoo! included, don’t have any on-site daycare for their employees.  (After she had her baby this past fall, Mayer did install a personal on-site nursery next to her office, but regular Yahoo! employees aren’t so lucky). The daily grind of getting kids to daycare and commuting to work can take its toll on employees.  And flex-time is a lifesaver when something unexpected comes up at home – a sick kid, a snow day, an elderly parent who needs support.

Third, allowing employees to work from home can make it easier for employees with disabilities to remain in the workforce.  In fact, in some cases, disability discrimination laws may require an employer to allow a disabled employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation.  This is true even if the company’s regular policy requires employees to report to the office for set hours, as long as the employee can still perform his or her essential job functions from home.

On the other hand, Mayer’s new policy isn’t entirely without justification.  Innovation often comes from in-person interactions at the office – an unplanned meeting in the hallway or a brainstorm by the coffee maker.  We lose those collaborations when everyone telecommutes.  And even with ever-increasing virtual ways to keep in touch, it’s hard to argue that emailing or Skyping are the equivalent of an in-person conversation.

No matter where you come down on the work-from-home debate, I think it’s pretty clear that Mayer has been criticized differently – and more harshly – for her policy decision in part because she’s a woman. The number of female CEO’s at Fortune 500 companies is currently at an all-time high – and it’s still just 20, a whopping 4%. As a woman heading a major U.S. company – and even more so as a young mother heading a major company – Mayer is in the extreme minority.  And like many trailblazers, she is being scrutinized at every turn.  Plenty of companies with male CEO’s have implemented policies against working from home – including Best Buy, which ended its flex-time policy just a week after Yahoo! did. But those announcements have received little attention, and certainly haven’t drawn the personal attacks that Mayer’s decision has.

The bottom line is that businesses and employees should work together to determine the best work situation for everyone.  Perhaps Mayer should be faulted not for her decision, but for Yahoo!’s failure to obtain input from its employees before making the decision to ban working from home.

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