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Jane Ahlin, Published March 02 2013

Ahlin: Irony of Yahoo memo in ‘flexible’ workplace

Did Yahoo’s young CEO, Marissa Mayer, expect pushback over her edict to Yahoo employees that there will be no more working from home? Of course. As the top executive of a Fortune 500 company who has risen so far (so fast!), she likely didn’t miss the irony of an Internet giant suddenly pulling the computer plug on employee telecommuting, either. Also, the double standard between Mayer’s putting a nursery next to her office at Yahoo headquarters in order to keep her infant son close even as she announced the end to job flexibility for employees – employees accustomed to using that flexibility to be more involved in the day-to-day lives of their own children – had to have crossed her mind. Certainly, at the age of 37, Mayer is young enough to be in touch with that immediate, rebellious attitude young Americans feel whenever authority is tinged with hypocrisy. (“Do as I say, not as I do” never has engendered loyalty or productivity.)

But Mayer is in a bind. As Yahoo’s fifth CEO in four years, she has a gargantuan task ahead in reviving the company. Business and news sources tell the story of an inefficient company with a bloated workforce and speculate that Mayer may see the drastic move to end telecommuting as a way to cull that force (think corporate version of self-deportation). Mayer may want workers in the office together physically just to figure out who fits. After that, she expects a healthier culture to emerge and Yahoo to flourish.

Whether she succeeds is hard to predict and may not be the most important point when all is said and done. For now, the only thing entirely clear is that her experiment is just that, an experiment. She’s stepping outside the norm – at least in high tech and global businesses – which includes telecommuting. Mayer’s decree may make life difficult for Yahoo employees for a while, but it’s hard to see it changing the trend in telecommuting or sending droves of workers back to “Mad Men”-style offices.

It’s even doubtful whether Yahoo’s change will resonate as gender bias. Initially it does because mothers in the workplace still are more likely than their spouses to need flexibility for child care problems. However, today’s workplace rules are written for parents, not just mothers. More and more fathers share parenting responsibilities and value flexibility as much as mothers do. Another point to note is that as important as work/home flexibility may be to parents, flexibility is more than an issue of corporate family friendliness. For some people, the workplace is distracting. If they are in the office all day, they end up with more work to take home at night.

Frankly, if any important discussion comes out of the Yahoo dustup, it will be one of boundaries. Fifty years ago when most women were housewives, a well-worn saying went, “Man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” The idea was that at the end of the day, there was rest from a paid job, but housework was unending.

Well, housework still is unending; however, in the new work world, it’s almost impossible to get away from the job. A text, a tweet, an instant message, or a regular old email makes even standing in line at the grocery store an opportunity to knock off a little work. The ability to be connected has translated into an expectation for work at any hour, day or night.

One of our sons-in-law works for a multinational company in its St. Paul office; however, in his division, many co-workers live in India, a time distance of 11 hours and 30 minutes. To be able to meet with those co-workers our son-in-law usually gets online between 6 and 7 a.m. (evening in India,) and, depending on the day, between 7 and 9 p.m. (early morning over there). By being able to see one another’s computers, they keep up with work and make decisions together. He loves his job, but his typical workday spans 12 to 14 hours. For our daughter and son-in-law, who have children, putting kids to bed at night is usually followed by sitting down to the computer for hours more of work. That seems to be today’s paradigm.

As far as I know, the Yahoo memo did not suggest employees in the office all day would be encouraged to disconnect at night.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.