No more working from home?

I’ve been fighting some sinus issues for a while now, and this morning it feels like I have so much congestion it is literally coming out of my eyeballs. My parents have been visiting for the last five days, and I desperately need to go grocery shopping and catch up on laundry. Grace is going through some sort of awful two-year old regression where she only wants ME, all of the time – no grandma or grandpa or daddy will substitute. I haven’t peed or showered alone at home in recent memory. I am – so tired – and as I stuffed my feet into some high heels and adjusted my panty hose this morning, I looked longingly into my living room and wished I could work from home today – on my couch, in my sweats, with coffee from my coffee maker and my laptop on my lap.

This is something my workplace allows occasionally – the opportunity to work from home. If we are expecting contractors or the cable guy or if we are sick with minor colds, no director in our department begrudges us the chance to work from home. It is not, however, business as usual for our organization.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marissa Mayer’s decision to have the entirety of the Yahoo staff return to the office, even those workers who had telecommuting worked into their contracts. Mostly, I think it is entirely within her right to decide that this is how she wants her company to run. She is very well aware that she will probably lose some talented, dedicated individuals this way, but the rewards will outweigh the risk. There is certainly truth to idea that when people work side by side in the office, collaboration and creativity can be fostered. Say what you will about skype, gomeeting.com, conference calls and all the rest – working relationships are forged when you can grab a quick lunch and discuss a specific problem, or spend time in your boss’s office with white boards and your team. Of course, cliques and emotional politics also arise when workers are together all day, every day, and nothing bonds co-workers together quite like a common enemy, so I imagine there will be plenty of “Can you even believe her” kinds of conversations happening surreptitiously in Yahoo’s hallways in June.

So, yes. Requiring your work force to work from actual offices is certainly within a CEO’s purview, but I wonder how much damage Mayer has done to the morale of her company in making this decision? In my own life, the ability to occasionally work from home because we need to have the roof repaired or the ceiling replastered has been absolutely invaluable, and on days when a head cold wouldn’t be enough for me to take time off, the rest I received working from our dining room table was sanity-saving. The flexibility and understanding of my employer on this issue is a huge perk when I consider looking for another job – it’s a perk I certainly don’t expect the vast majority of other companies to offer. And I do not rely on this flexibility to maintain my work/life balance – so I can’t imagine what a heartwrenching issue this must be for people who accepted a job at yahoo under the condition they work from home. I am probably overly, and some people would say stupidly, loyal to my organization because of the compassion and understanding it has shown to me as a new mother, as a daughter of aging parents, and as a wife. In exchange for the kind of family/life support I’ve received from my employer, I willingly (okay, mostly willingly) check my blackberry on evenings and weekends, work Saturdays when required, and accept that I have to incorporate work into my “life,” and “life” into my work.

I was speaking with my old boss from Detroit a while back – she’s now a vice-president of a prominent heath care organization in Michigan. Like me, she’s a fast-talking, extroverted public relations type. We are not the kinds of people who need to recover from being around other people (something I’ve read about from introverts).When I asked her how things were going, she was almost exultant.

“Who is in the office anymore? Who is at home? Who knows! I care for my dad in the afternoon, take Gavin to school in the mornings, have conference calls in my car, meet with editorial teams for long lunches – it’s a new working world, and it’s fabulous.” (Yes, I swear, she really talks like this. She LOVES working).

This was, pretty much, her approach with her staff when I worked for her and she really defined how I work today. If I need to make a call about my mother-in-law’s spine trouble during working hours, I do it from my office, and if I need to meet a reporter’s deadline after working hours, I do so from my dining room. I do take pains to avoid working much while Grace is awake, but it’s not always possible to avoid and I don’t at all mind setting an example to my daughter that women work, and it isn’t always done away from the home. I’ve mostly been rewarded for this level of flexibility on my part, and the weekend hours and travel I put in previously have afforded me the luxury to be pickier about the travel and weekend assignments I do take now. Admittedly, if work is like a jungle gym, like Sheryl Sandberg states, then I am down a rung or two now, but I know I’ll be climbing right back up.

It seems to me it is this kind of flexibity that Mayer is removing from her workforce. I don’t know what kind of time-off yahoo employees receive…if it’s substantially generous time off then this may be a whole different story. But if standard doctor’s appointments and waiting-for-the-cable guy kind of working “off-site” time is no longer an option, then I think she is elevating office “face time” to a level of importance that really doesn’t exist, and she will end up pitting the employees who have the luxury of a partner at home to manage everyday small, domestic crises against those who don’t – and I can’t imagine that is going to be great for yahoo morale.

I have seen some arguments claiming that Mayer made a move against feminism when she decided to call her employees back to the office, but I don’t think that is the case at all. I think she made a thoughtful, tough decision about where her work values, and for Mayer, showing up is hugely important. I imagine her expectations will only snowball from here…those who work later hours and come in earlier will be more likely to advance than those who don’t – clockwatchers will not be tolerated. Ultimately most of us won’t really know what goes on inside the yahoo offices…whether a tremendous backlash against Mayer will occur and ultimately, possibly lead to her exit, or whether she is a good enough leader to make this policy shift work in her favor. I hope, while taking away telecommuting, Mayer is able to show faith and confidence in her staff in other ways – if her desire REALLY is to have “one yahoo,” and not reign in employees she, or those who directly report to her, feel are “shirking” or otherwise not keeping their end of the bargain, then her leadership will show that yahoo could very well become a place we all want to work.

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3 thoughts on “No more working from home?

  1. What a thoughtful, thought-provoking and well-balanced post! Here in France, working from home is not something big companies allow much at all, face time is very important and that has hugely disadvantaged women in getting top jobs. On the other hand, we have a lot vacation time which is designed to be used for those mornings where you’re stuck home with a sick child or waiting for the cable guy (foreigners always imagine that we always go on holidays but that’s not the truth). Also, when there are public transportation strikes, people take days off or work from home and most bosses show some understanding (I had a boss who wanted us on-site so she drove us in her own car! -we were a small team luckily). But I love working in the office because of the companionship and team spirit. Working from home makes me anxious regarding my performance bc it’s more difficult to know what is expected and where you stand so many times it drives me to being overly perfectionist.

  2. While I am self-employed and work from anywhere, my husband works in an office and his role at work really doesn’t “require” him to be in the office very frequently. Most of the time, he does go in, but I’m thankful his employer is very open to work from home. When I became very ill after having Felix, Corey was able to work from home for 12 weeks, only going in to the office once a week for short bursts. Having him home to help lift things/children or step in to help with dual nap times was…invaluable doesn’t even seem like the right word because it was so essential.

    I wonder if the end of yahoo’s telecommuting necessarily means absolutely THE END or if Mayer will still allow workers to wait for repairs or tend to an ill relative. Admittedly, I haven’t had a chance to read any of the articles about it, but of course have heard of the policy shift!

  3. Smithereens – I agree. I think the companionship and team spirit that comes from being in the office is invaluable, at least in my position. I imagine if I had a more solitary job that required a substantial amount of solitude I would feel differently, however.

    Katy – it sounds like Yahoo is going to be pretty severe about even staying home, waiting for the cable guy…that said, I think it is sort of hard to judge that decision until/unless it turns out yahoo’s time off policy is pretty generous.

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