SAN FRANCISCO — Corporate America's most famous working mother has banned her employees from working at home. Now the backlash is threatening to overshadow the progress she has made turning around Yahoo Inc.
Marissa Mayer, one of only a handful of women leading Fortune 500 companies, has become the talk of Twitter and Silicon Valley for her controversial move to end telecommuting at the struggling Internet pioneer.
From the start, Mayer, who at 37 is one of Silicon Valley's most notorious workaholics, was not the role model that some working moms were hoping for. The former Google Inc. executive stirred up controversy by taking the demanding top job at Yahoo when she was five months pregnant and then taking only two weeks of maternity leave. Mayer built a nursery next to her office at her own expense to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.
Now working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements. Many view telecommuting as the only way time-crunched women can care for young children and advance their careers without the pay, privilege or perks that come with being the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.
"When a working mother is standing behind this, you know we are a long way from a culture that will honor the thankless sacrifices that women too often make," read one email sent to technology blogger Kara Swisher of AllThingsD, who first wrote about the ban.
Hundreds of staffers — including those who work from home one or two days a week — will have to decide if they want to start showing up every day at the office or be out of a job, according to a memo leaked to Swisher.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices," Jackie Reses, Yahoo's human resources chief, wrote in the memo sent out Friday. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together."
Mayer, who is trying to reverse Yahoo's long downward spiral, has raised the hopes of investors and sprinkled amenities such as free food and iPhones on battle-weary employees. But after those juicy carrots has come the stick.
"Like a team huddling before a game, there are moments in a company's development when getting everybody to physically huddle together is a very good thing," said Paul Saffo, head of foresight at Discern Analytics. "The question is at what cost."
Sources told AllThingsD that Mayer has grown frustrated because the Yahoo parking lot in Sunnyvale, Calif., was slow to fill up in the morning and quick to empty by 5 p.m. — something not typical of the hard-charging Silicon Valley rivals that Yahoo must beat to regain its perch.
Some observers speculated that Mayer was looking to trim unproductive workers without the costs associated with a layoff and in the process may have gotten more bad publicity than she bargained for.
Yahoo declined to comment on "internal matters."
British billionaire Richard Branson publicly criticized Mayer for being out of step with the modern workplace in a blog post: "Give people the freedom of where to work."
"This seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever," Branson wrote.
The U.S. already lags behind the rest of the industrialized world in flexible work arrangements, said Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor and research associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.
"It's sad to see a large employer go in this direction," Glass said. "There is no functional reason that people who work from home can't work just as productively as they do from the office."
Still, only a small percentage — about 2.5% — of American workers primarily work from home despite congested roadways, long commutes and the demands of caring for young children or elderly parents. But that number is growing at a rapid clip: up 66% from 2005 to 2010, according to Telework Research Network.
UCLA management professor David Lewin said the telecommuting ban is a risky step that could further damage Yahoo employee morale and performance and undermine recruiting efforts in a hotly competitive job market.
A 2011 study by WorldatWork also found that companies that embraced flexibility had lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.
"This policy certainly goes against the grain," Lewin said. "That's one of the main reasons it is catching so much attention."
Mayer has some prominent defenders. Donald Trump praised her on Twitter, saying she's "right to expect Yahoo employees to come to the workplace vs. working at home."
Ironically, Silicon Valley takes much of the credit for the telecommuting boom. It makes the technology that helps workers plug in from anywhere they have an Internet connection.
But the unwritten rule at major Silicon Valley companies is: Just because you can work from anywhere doesn't mean you should. Most Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Facebook Inc. have informal policies allowing telecommuting, but they champion the concept of closeness. They design their campuses to encourage it with gourmet cafes dishing out free food and inviting, comfortable meeting rooms where employees can lounge and talk.
"The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?' And our answer is: 'As few as possible,'" Patrick Pichette, Google's chief financial officer, said recently. "There is something magical about spending the time together."