Fran Rodgers, a pioneer of the work/family movement and workplace flexibility, urges Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer to reverse her ban on telecommuting.
You don’t know me, so let me explain why I feel I am qualified to give you advice. I was a pioneer of the work/family movement and workplace flexibility and a highly sought-after consultant and speaker. I worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies on adapting work practices to changing lives of employees and on promoting the advancement of women. I started a company called Work/Family Directions that provided a new generation of employee benefits, and when I sold it in 1999, over 3 million employees were covered. I advised hundreds of companies about practices that enhanced both employee satisfaction and business results. In fact, in 1989, my husband Charles Rodgers and I published an article in the Harvard Business Review called Business and The Facts of Family Life that made the business case for more flexible workplaces.
I am sure that you are really surprised by the public reaction and notoriety this decision has engendered. Surely hundreds of male CEOs have made decisions like this with no public notice at all. But you are not any CEO. You did not ask to be a role model for women, and I personally think that it is unfair that you will get so much more scrutiny than men. However, as a young mother CEO, like it or not, you are more visible and more watched, and it would be good if you could embrace this and be aware that all your actions are magnified. Your job is to be a good leader of Yahoo! but you cannot change the added power that you have to send messages about what women can do. Your maternity leave, while visible, could certainly be considered your personal business, but the human resource decisions you make affect others in very personal and important ways.
I do not know why you decided to eliminate telework across the board. Based on the statements I have read, I assume that you feel it was somehow out of control and undermining a cohesion that you seek. Others sometimes doubt that work at home can produce equal results to office work and imagine that most teleworkers are moms watching their children while they do Yahoo! work. At least the latter seems to be the opinion of some who are defending your decision.
I know that by now you have seen the criticisms of what you have done and an array of evidence that proves that flexible work, including work at home, actually increases both productivity and satisfaction. I was personally involved in the first wave of research on flexibility where we demonstrated that when employees feel they have control over how and where their work gets done, they actually are more committed than others to the company’s success and they do their utmost to produce results.
Moreover, telework, which is clearly a great help for many working parents, has advanced over the years for reasons unrelated to parenting and I am quite sure that many, if not most, of those working at home do so for reasons other than parenting. I am also quite sure that your employees are not working at home at the same time they are trying to be full-time parents. That just does not work.
In fact, work at home grew over time with the advance of available technology and because outside circumstances gave companies no choice but to try it. I recall that after the big earthquake in San Francisco, with the transportation system in disarray, many companies previously completely opposed to work at home suddenly saw it as an imperative. Employees were able to set up makeshift offices and keep businesses running, leading many companies to have new respect for their employees’ ability to work and produce in different circumstances. Also, telework grew when the government set commuting restrictions due to environmental concerns. Lastly, real estate departments of companies promoted telecommuting in order to reduce the need for expensive new buildings and discovered that setting people up with proper equipment at home was a cheaper alternative to construction. These examples created many natural experiments that demonstrated that on balance, working at home was a viable option for many jobs.
So putting on my previous CEO and consultant hat, these are my suggestions for you:
1) Put out a new announcement to your employees reversing your blanket statement about telework, and propose a new process to allow telework when it can be shown that business results will not suffer. There is nothing wrong with reviewing or even adjusting telework policies. Your mistake was doing it is a blanket and casual fashion without understanding how important it is to your people and the advantages that it offers to the company. Also, you described no way forward to allow people to make the case for their own continuing work at home.
2) The conversations that you can encourage between managers and their employees as part of a reintroduction of telework can be really good for business. To do successful work at home (and really any job), one key is to be very clear about what results are expected and how the employee will be evaluated. The process you devise should give the employee, who knows the details of his or her job best, the adult responsibility to propose how and where his or her work will get done. In our experience, very few employees make frivolous or poor proposals when they are forced to look at their personal needs alongside business needs and make proposals about the way they work. Encourage your managers to work with employees to facilitate the best solutions for that person. Done right, this process will be a win-win. Employees are happier when they have control over their lives and are treated as adults. Managers have a clear sense of what to expect from the employee and talent is retained.
3) Don’t fear loss of control simply because you don’t see your people. After all, people travel, work with others all over the world and often don’t have occasion to see their colleagues. If you judge by results, control and seeing people is much less important.
4) Your concerns about collegiality and community-building are good ones and do need special thought with extensive telecommuting. All jobs aren’t suited for telecommuting and some need more time in the office than others. But community and cohesion can be facilitated in many ways. For example, making sure people get together sometimes or even on a scheduled basis is a reasonable thing to arrange. You may personally want to send more company-wide messages, or have more parties, or try whatever it may take to keep the spirit you want. But don’t discount the amount of community or connection that can be made online or over the phone. After all, you are Yahoo!.
5) Be better prepared for the scrutiny you are getting as a woman and think carefully about the messages you are sending. I am sure that the vast majority of women are glad you are there and root for your success. But some will be vocal and critical. Other employers may use what you do to justify actions that at their root hurt women’s employment differentially. I am sure that is not what you want.
I wish you great success and hope that this early error will be a learning experience and lead to greater wisdom.
Fran Sussner Rodgers is Senior Advisor to Role/Reboot. She was the founder and CEO of Work/Family Directions.