mastehead-work

Marissa: It's Not About The Bunny Slippers. It's About the Cash.

mayer2This is just not a modern way to think.

That was my first thought when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, through her HR chief, decreed that Yahoo employees were forbidden from working from home. It reminded me of Mitt Romney's infamous "binders of women" comment, or of when I worked for a guy who couldn't shake his reliance on military metaphors.

These aren't the world's most egregious examples of bad management, but they nonetheless have a way of making the environment seem rather last-century.

The pundits who are debating whether Mayer is right (more face time equals more innovation) or wrong (telecommuting is good for productivity) are missing the point.

They, and, it seems, Mayer, are looking at telecommuting as a nice-to-have. As a perk, of about the same level of importance as a company smartphone or free food on Fridays or the ability to wear FiveFinger shoes to the office in the name of business casual.

If only.

I was once in a similar, if less dramatic, situation than those working-from-home Yahooers. And I can tell you that for a group of us, flexibility is a deal-breaker. Yahoo employees who bargained away bigger titles, nicer salaries, and plum responsibilities just so they could get their precious work-from-home days have every right to feel they've been caught in a bait-and-switch. (I write about this from the perspective of a parent of young children. I realize there are other people who value flexibility dearly, too. If that describes you, I'd love for you to email me at kimberly at onethingnew dot com, write a column for us, or leave a comment on our Facebook page.)

At a previous job, there were a group of us, who, with our managers' blessings, regularly left the office at about 5:15. Often, at that time, someone else would be busy editing our copy. That was okay. We'd go home, eat dinner and get our kids to bed. When we logged back on at 8:00 or 8:30 at night, our editors' comments would be waiting for us. As long as we could get our revisions done by 9:00 the next morning, everyone was fine with it. Of course there were nights when we had to stay late, but with careful planning we managed to minimize those.

We knew we were lucky to have this arrangement. We also thought it helped us do better work. It's a lot easier to concentrate on doing a good job on your revisions when you're not worried about your kids.

Then we got a new management team. They didn't send out any memos, but it was clear: No more leaving at 5:15. Wait until your editor is done with your copy, make the changes, and then go home. Work-from-home days became a thing of the past.

Let me be clear, too: Changing the schedule was totally their prerogative. They were the bosses. I didn't like these changes, but I wouldn't say the changes were evil or even the epitome of bad management. Plenty of news organizations are run like that, and for a time, I had been lucky--and very, very thankful--to be at one that wasn't.

At the beginning, we all wanted to keep our jobs. Can you blame us? So we tried to make it work. And in those transitional months, when the new team was laying down the law and work-from-home-days were evaporating, I did not hear a single parent complaining about how much he or she missed the kids.

Instead, we complained about the money. Constantly. At the risk of stating the obvious: If you're supposed to pick your kid up by 6:00, say, and your workplace flexibility disappears, someone's still got to pick that kid up. Your spouse or partner probably can't do it, because flexibility is rare enough that, in my experience, one partner usually has the 'flexible' job while the other one is chained to his or her desk.

Mayer, a new mother, solved this problem by building a nursery next to her office for her four-month old son. Good for her. But I wonder what would happen if one of her mid-level employees commandeered some extra space next to his or her cubicle and hauled in a crib, some plush toys, and a baby.

Those of us who can't build nurseries next to our offices have to pay someone else to pick up our children and look after them until we can make it home. At my company, there was a group of people who suddenly were paying hundreds of extra dollars per week in childcare, simply because their flexible hours had vanished. We were in shock.

Eventually, most of us left. Either because we were laid off, we realized we weren't a good fit with the new regime, or we found something better. My guess is that's what will happen at Yahoo, too. Some employees will try to stick it out, and if Yahoo is a great company to work for, maybe those employees' partners will get different jobs or find another way to rearrange their schedules. Maybe their toddlers will learn to drive themselves home from pre-K.

But let's not pretend these employees have been cruelly deprived of the right to work while wearing bunny slippers or to eat lunch while watching Oprah. They're getting a pay cut, pure and simple. -- Kimberly Weisul

(2/28/2013)

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Photo of Marissa Mayer courtesy of flickr user jdlasica



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