Anyone hoping that Marissa Mayer, the 37-year-old who recently took the helm of Yahoo and became a mother three months later, would somehow pave the way for working mothers—at least those seeking a modicum of work-life balance—can ditch that wish. Mayer burst that bubble when she announced in February that Yahoo would no longer allow telecommuting. Not even once a week or once in a while. None. Period. No exceptions.
I have a theory about why she did it.
Maybe Mayer was so wacked out from post-partum exhaustion—after all, she gave herself only one week (yes, you read correctly) maternity leave after the birth of her baby last fall—that she made the decision to nix telecommuting at Yahoo while in a typical state of new motherhood: sleep-deprived, hormonal-imbalanced, and generally delirious.
Recalling my own brain-numb bone-tired self after giving birth and waking incessantly throughout the night to feed and pacify my squeaky newborns, I often have said that employers who demand or “strongly suggest” that their employees return to work within weeks or even months of giving birth are asking for whatever they get in return.
Regardless of what really made Mayer pull the trigger on telecommuting, the official memo from Yahoo’s human resources department read that the company was banning the practice because “face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture.”
As someone who has worked primarily from a basement office for the past 12-plus years, I agree that communicating with employers and associates is critical for collaboration. That’s what telephones, email, Skype and occasional face-to-face meetings are for. But, depending on the nature of one’s job, the need to collaborate is not the only “need” a professional has.
In many professions, periods of collaboration interspersed with quiet times for independent working create the ideal balance for optimum productivity and creativity. Countless employees who are tethered to their offices day in and day out—where co-workers constantly pop their heads into their cubes and distractions rule the work day—wish for even a half hour of solitude during the work day to actually get something done. Many of them never get it.
For those poor employees of Mayer who are stuck working near her office, they can now add a new distraction to their work day. Apparently, Mayer paid to install a nursery in her office at work. So now, those employees who once worked from the quiet of their homes on occasion may struggle to tune out the sound of Mayer’s baby wailing or, equally annoying, they might have to listen to Mayer cooing at her baby or watch her pecking away at her keyboard while bouncing her baby in her lap.
Is Mayer going to let all her employees build nurseries in their offices? Doubtful. Nor would that make sense. Conversely, telecommuting shouldn’t be about being at home with your kids while the boss thinks you’re working. I was always annoyed at moms who “telecommuted” one or two days a week and, on those “work from home” days, made runs to Target (with kids in tow), took kids to preschool and doctor appointments, and oversaw play dates.
Sure, parents who telecommute may occasionally do so because their kids are sick or have a day off from school. But conscientious telecommuters don’t attempt to work at home on a regular basis while watching young children. When my kids were really little, I used to wait for the babysitter to show up, then bid my children adieu before walking around the house to the basement, and quietly slipping in the back door. There was no way I could have tried to watch them or even let them know I was on the premises while getting much of anything productive done.
What telecommuting has done for me as a mom is allow me to cut down on all the superfluous stuff that sucks up time: pulling myself together by putting on something other than yoga pants in the morning, plus the actual commute. Combined, this can add up to two hours or so. In that amount of time, I can pick up my kids from school, oversee homework, and make dinner at a reasonable hour.
As for the mom stuck in the office late afternoons? Chances are, she’s mentally checked out and is “virtually” checking in with her family to make sure everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to do—something that few employers would applaud.
I think most moms would agree that being a virtual parent feels a lot more challenging and less successful than being a virtual employee. Unfortunately, Yahoo’s Mayer doesn’t see it this way. If she ever does decide to look at it from her employees’ perspective, at least that of working moms, she might view things differently.