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Marissa Mayer vs. Work-at-Home Moms

Photograph by Getty Images

Marissa Mayer does not get paid to innovate the workplace. She wasn't hired to make working mothers feel validated. She didn't reach the top of a Fortune 500 company by hoping people would like her. Rather, she became the CEO of Yahoo on a promise that she would rescue the outdated behemoth. Last week, her attempt to make good on that promise came at the expense of a promise made to several hundred workers: They'd no longer be allowed to work from home.

Some other time, we can discuss our disappointment with Mayer as a mom-woman-CEO combo, and how we'd really appreciate some profoundly innovative workplace leadership from the corporate, as well as governmental, sector. For now, though, let's talk about how backwards it is for a company trying to get ahead of the curve to declare an all-out ban on flextime and working from home.

Some background: Mayer's ban on flextime at Yahoo was announced in an internal memo from Jackie Reses, head of Yahoo human resources. As Kara Swisher on All Things D reports, Reses explained the change by saying speed and quality are sacrificed when folks work from home. The memo also stated that employees need to come together and "be one at Yahoo" which means "physically being together."

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Never mind that plenty of studies show productivity is not diminished when workers aren't chained to a desk. Never mind that Yahoo wants this physical presence in order to create and maintain a virtual space. And especially never mind that some workers may have taken jobs at Yahoo because they could work from home all or part of the time. By June, everyone has to be on site.

It's unfortunate that Mayer sees an on-site workforce as the only way to get Yahoo back on track—and not just because Mayer is a woman or a parent (though one would hope this could give her a broader perspective on how moms get stuff done). It's unfortunate because she's the leader of a big company that occupies a virtual space and because innovations like flextime have made it easier for many working women and men rising up in their careers to stay in the game despite growing personal responsibility outside of work (read: family, kids, aging parents, lower living expenses, etc.). Instead of shrinking her talent pool by kicking out all but the locals and those who don't need flextime guarantees, Mayer should be embracing different technologies. She should be thinking creatively as a leader to find ways to make her workforce better or more efficient, more creative or more cohesive.

I've also learned that working from home, especially as a parent, is often misunderstood.

I've worked from home for years and not always by choice. I miss the office, the work clothes and sometimes even the commute (I have three kids—alone time is dreamy). But I also have the routine down, don't get distracted by undone housework (oh no, no, no) and have developed such excellent working relationships with some bosses and co-workers that sometimes I forget I have never actually met them.

I've also learned that working from home, especially as a parent, is often misunderstood. For example, it's mostly true that you can't do a good job all of the time if you have young kids and absolutely no child care. You can make it work a bit, but not full-time, five days a week, week after week after week. Which is why most people I know who work from home still send their kids out to a babysitter, preschool or day care—or, in a pinch, work many, many hours late at night. The really lucky ones have reached that important working parenting milestone most of us (and our bank accounts) can't wait for: all the kids in school full-time (come on, fall 2014!).

Some critics of flextime suspect, and I suppose Mayer is one of them, that people who work from home screw around a lot. Some sure, but no more than in a typical office. Anyway, we work-from-home types often toil through the lunch hour, since there's no onsite cafeteria (just leftovers) and no daily lunch buddy (for me, the absolute worst downside of not going in to an office). We also don't need an entire afternoon off to go get a sick kid from school or to hit the dentist. Hell, we'll even answer emails in the waiting room.

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Also, we get used to working! In fact, it's one of the biggest challenges when you let work into your home: you never stop. And that's one of the reasons that studies show productivity isn't necessarily lower for telecommuters. Of course, just like any workplace, you get your achievers and the ones who fly under the radar. Good management susses all that out, whether in person or simply analyzing results.

The point is, Mayer hopes to solve a problem with this all-hands-on-deck decree. What she doesn't get is that saving her sinking ship doesn't require every worker's physical presence all the time. It requires leadership and a vision implemented by good, productive workers who generally like what they do, like who they work for and feel like the job meets their needs as much as they meet the job's requirements. But like captains of plenty of other companies, Fortune 500 or otherwise, Mayer risks the downsides when she ignores workplace innovations and the ability to attract and hold on to working mothers and fathers and other human workers who could benefit from the ability to log in remotely at least some of the time.

Current workers have until June to take advantage of one other perk of working from home: The boss at Yahoo won't catch them updating and sending out résumés.

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