There’s nothing wrong with Mayer asking Yahoos to work at the office

February 28, 2013

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. (Mashable)

I admire Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s 37-year-old chief executive.

As Yahoo! Inc.’s third leader in less than a year, she knew she had to make some major changes to keep Yahoo competitive with giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook when she took over in July 2012. So far, those changes seem to be working.

On Feb. 4, Business Insider reported that Yahoo is the 8th best place among the Fortune 500 to work, based on a combination of happiness, as measured by things like stress levels and having a flexible schedule, and pay. Seventy-two percent of Yahoos, as the employees are known, say they are very satisfied at work. Mayer has something to do with that. After joining the company, she gave her employees free meals and smartphones. Free food?  Smart move.

On Feb. 20, Mayer made Yahoo’s homepage more inviting, as she noted on Yahoo’s company blog, “Yodel Anecdotal.” This move was hailed as a way to modernize the Web site by showing not only news but also stories that friends have shared on Facebook. Link with Facebook? Smart move.

The company’s shares are up about 30 percent compared with 10 percent for the S&P 500 since Mayer was hired, and the company is now worth $25 billion. More people visited Yahoo’s sites in December than those of any other U.S. company besides Google, according to Bloomberg.

Days after the homepage revamp, Mayer made what she certainly thought was another smart move. She said that Yahoo employees should work together at the office rather than remotely from home.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” according to an internal memo that Kara Swisher at AllThingsD published. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”  Bring Yahoos into the office?  Smart move.

But not everyone thinks so.

Reaction to the memo was ferocious. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post said: “How ironic that a technology company, dedicated to enabling connectivity, would enforce such a retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict.” Maureen Dowd of The New York Times said that Mayer “seems to believe that enough employees are goofing off at home that she should bring them off the cloud and into the cubicle.” Dozens and dozens of blogs followed, nearly universal in criticizing Mayer’s decision.

This outrage puzzles me.

I’d like to see evidence that remote workers are more productive than those in the office.

Moreover, working at home isn’t the norm. Google, Apple and Facebook provide free meals and other perks (Workers can go bowling at Google and get their hair cut or dry cleaning done at Facebook ) not so that their employees don’t have to leave the office, but so that they don’t even want to leave. Since Google, Apple and Facebook are all doing better financially than Yahoo is, Mayer’s decision to emulate those companies and bring Yahoos back into the office is smart.

Working at home has its perks and can improve the productivity of many workers. But  the real benefit of working at home seems to be the flexibility to take care of a sick child, be around when the kids come home from school and to run errands during the week to free up the weekend for quality family time. Accommodating those desires would seem to be a relatively easy task, like giving workers one day every two weeks to telecommute or allowing them to use their own sick days to take care if a sick child.

What I really don’t understand is the outrage of so many women. Mayer seems to be doing the kinds of things that all working women should admire. She took the top job at Yahoo, becoming one of the rare female CEOs in America, when she was six months pregnant. She made it clear that she would be back at the job as soon as possible — in fact, she was back in just two weeks with baby in tow, thanks to the on-site nursery she had built next to her office.

Would women be happier if she had turned down the job because she was pregnant or because she couldn’t work at home?  I hope not.

Besides, to paraphrase singing star Taylor Swift, Mayer didn’t say that her fellow Yahoos would “never, ever, ever work at home again.” The latest memo simply said: “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now.”

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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