Marissa Mayer backlash: Much ado about nothing?

(Peter Kramer / Associated Press)

One season, Marissa Mayer is a modern-day feminist icon giving hope to women who want to climb to the top while also having a family. Another season, she’s the worst thing to have happened to the women’s liberation movement.

Much has been made this week about the Yahoo CEO’s decision to ban telecommuting. (As though reporting to the office were such an outrageous demand.) Part of the memo from HR read:

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. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Personally, I’ve always believed in a “united we stand, divided we fall” mentality. Whether working side by side is the answer to fostering unity is up for debate. Still, if I were an employee at Yahoo, I’d probably be grateful to a CEO who was trying to reinvigorate a company by encouraging her employees to be part of the innovation process.

Opponents have criticized Mayer, calling her decision regressive, anti-family and a punishment to working moms. Critics have explained the benefits of telecommuting, mocking the tech company for taking a giant step backward. And opinionators have complained that not all working moms have the luxury of building a nursery next to their office so that they can be close to their children.


You’d think Mayer had mandated that employees start living at Yahoo and sleeping under their desks.

Never mind that the Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield tried to calm down the masses with this post: “Chill Out, Marissa Mayer Work-at-Home Memo’s Not About You.” People haven’t been able to stop debating the many issues that Mayer’s edict sparked.

The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd writes that Mayer should show some sensitivity:

The dictatorial decree to work “side by side” had some dubbing Mayer not “the Steinem of Silicon Valley” but “the Stalin of Silicon Valley.” […]

She seems to believe that enough employees are goofing off at home that she should bring them off the cloud and into the cubicle. But she should also be sympathetic to the very different situation of women -- and men -- struggling without luxurious layers of help.

Mayer has a nursery next to the executive suite. But not everyone has it so sweet.

Writing about both Mayer and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s impact on working moms, Joanne Bamberger laments:

Both Mayer and Sandberg are overlooking the forest for the trees. The amount of household help they can afford to manage their family lives isn’t a reality for the vast majority of women and never will be. […]

With the launch of Sandberg’s “Lean In” effort and Mayer’s office-work only proclamation, two things are apparent: Both have forgotten about the women who came before, enabling them to land in their lofty positions in the first place.

And the duo don’t want to extend the same hand to anyone else. Instead, they’ve launched the latest salvo in the war on moms.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus criticizes Mayer going retro in two ways:

How ironic that a technology company, dedicated to enabling connectivity, would enforce such a retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict. It reflect a bricks-and-mortar mindset in an increasingly cyber world. How depressing that this edict comes from a female CEO, albeit a seemingly bionic one. You have to wonder whether this is Mayer demonstrating that she is as tough -- or as boneheaded -- as any guy.

Telecommuting was not the problem. Management was, argues Max Nisen in Business Insider:

What’s pretty clear from details that have emerged is that Yahoo did an exceptionally bad job at managing its remote workers. People who worked from home were apparently unproductive and so disconnected from the company that people forgot that they worked at Yahoo at all.

Successfully running a remote team requires extra communication and engagement from managers, not less. Occasional emails just don’t cut it; leaders have to genuinely know their remote employees and how to communicate with them to get great work from them. If remote workers were unproductive and disengaged, then it’s at least partially because the company and its leaders let them get that way.

But rather than try to deal with those issues, Yahoo’s chosen just to end remote work completely. That’s understandable. Mayer’s trying to clean house and completely change a company that’s had several CEOs in quick succession. But she may have created a long-term problem.

In fact, writes Ellen Galinsky for the Daily Beast, telecommuting is the answer:

What I expect Yahoo to learn is that telecommuting is not the problem -- it is a solution. It is clear that wherever employees work -- in the office, at home, or at remote locations -- they need to be well managed and engaged in making the company a success. Yes, it is about creating an engaged work culture, but in the global economy, it’s not only about bumping into other colleagues around the water cooler. It is about taking direct steps to create a culture of collaboration and innovation. If Yahoo has a problem with employees not being productive, they need to address that problem directly.

And opining for CNN, Ellen Ernst Kossek offers a suggestion for how to make telecommuting work:

Employees commit to an organization because they buy into company goals and feel valued, not because they are ordered to sit at their desks. Yahoo may have long-term trust and morale issues if it continues this policy. Abolishing telework is like canceling the prom because some immature people spiked the punch bowl. It is not going to get Yahoo out of its doldrums. It may result in exodus, as talents leave for employers who do not see work-life flexibility at war with job performance. […]

Productivity does not equal face time. What remote workers should do is set clear performance goals and regular times for meetings and calls with core teams. Telework can build loyalty since employees can better manage their family life -- something that everyone can appreciate. And sometimes, they end up working more hours that they don’t clock in.

It hasn’t been all backlash for Mayer, though.

In an item for Forbes, Greg Satell praises Mayer as a leader:

Mayer made a tough call. Many of the remote workers joined Yahoo! because they could work at home and they are understandably upset. However, the role of a CEO is not to try to please everyone, but to lead. That means making decisions that people aren’t going to like, dealing with the consequences and moving forward.

We’ve known for a long time that Marissa Mayer is one of the smartest people in technology. Now it seems that she might have the of strength character to be a great leader as well.

Also writing for Forbes, Margie Warrell explains the benefits of in-person communication. One example:

A recent study out of University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that the farther away people are from the person they were communicating with, the more apt they are to lie or exaggerate. Those communicating via email lied about five times more than those speaking face-to-face, whereas those using instant message lied about three times more than those talking face-to-face.

And in a thoughtful take for the Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that everyone should wait for results (or lack thereof) before judging the decision.

Any leader who has had to transform a company or an institution understands that culture change is essential. People have to think differently about their jobs and their employers before they will do their jobs differently. Moreover, when a ship is going down, it is not unreasonable to demand all hands on deck. Mayer tried to go with the existing telecommuting policy, which apparently works elsewhere in Silicon Valley, but concluded that it was contributing to the culture that she needed to change. That does not mean she will not return to that policy if and when Yahoo! recovers. And in the meantime, I for one hope to see much more on-site day care on Yahoo!'s premises. […]

So let’s withhold judgment for a while and let Marissa Mayer do her job. Let’s evaluate her on whether she can turn Yahoo around. If her instincts are right, and she has to bring everyone back together on site to get the company going in a profitable and sustainable direction, then we will have to adjust our perceptions of when telecommuting makes sense and when it may not. If results really improve, then we have a much harder time convincing the many employers who are afraid of deeply flexible policies to change. If Mayer is wrong, then we will have time enough to dissect the reasons why, and Mayer herself will join the numerous ranks of former Yahoo CEOs.


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier