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Jewish World Review
Feb. 28, 2013/ 18 Adar, 5773
Woman CEO's telecommuting bomb hurts many
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has dropped a bomb on the business world by rescinding permission for her employees to telecommute. It's more than simply ironic that this decision was made by a 30-something female who was hired to turn around the once-giant tech company. Mayer was six months' pregnant when she started work and was widely expected to be family-friendly, instead of decidedly family-unfriendly. If anyone could have understood the importance of juggling work and family responsibilities, it should have been she, correct?
Not so much, as it turns out.
Clearly -- to Mayer, at least -- face time matters. There are things one produces collaboratively at a centralized workplace that cannot be replicated by telecommuting.
Mayer's decision raises several important questions: What drove her to conclude that telecommuting was harming her chances to successfully turn around Yahoo? Will other companies follow her lead? And what does her decision say about a company's willingness to support work-family flexibility benefits?
On the first question, Harvard Business Review's Michael Schrage writes: "I'm pretty confident this reflects a data-driven decision more than a cavalier command. In all likelihood, Mayer has taken good, hard looks at Yahoo's top 250 performers and top 20 projects and come to her own conclusions about who's creating real value -- and how -- in her company. She knows who her best people are."
Assuming Schrage is right -- and most business writers are echoing his or a similar explanation for her move -- that's a pretty damning assessment of the efficacy of telecommuting, at least in the high-tech field. Since the advent of working via wireless, experts have always known that telecommuting could only apply in certain categories of work. Factory workers, hotel service providers, housekeepers, retail clerks, nurses and most doctors and the like must show up at the workplace to put in hours. That is not true of lawyers, writers, filing clerks, 800-number operators and others who can complete much of their work remotely.
But how many of us are taking advantage of telecommuting? In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 22.9 percent of men and 24.5 percent of women worked from home "on an average day." That's a fairly sizable chunk of the workforce.
Many telecommuters say they would not be able to stay in their current jobs without family-friendly flexibility. Does that mean if many companies follow Mayer's lead, almost one-quarter of the workforce will have to find new employment?
Advocates of flexibility hope not. Michigan-based blogger Vickie Elmer quotes Amanda Augustine of TheLadders.com, a job-search site for executives, as saying : "I don't believe we'll see many other companies following suit. ... As technology continues to advance, our world is becoming smaller and smaller. Between conferencing software and document-sharing services, the ability to work -- and perform well -- as a remote team is even easier."
While I might hope Augustine is right, my gut instinct is that family-friendly benefits will be among the first to be tossed aside in tough economic times. To answer my own third question, I believe workers overall are better off building their own networks, which allow them to juggle work and life outside it, rather than depending on gossamer corporate supports.
That means both parents need to pitch in and provide equal shares of child care and housework. Woe to the person who becomes a single parent without the benefit of a partner to share the work.
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Bonnie Erbe is host of PBS' "To the Contrary" and writes weekly for Scripps Howard News Service.
© 2013, Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service