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The 20% solution

I’m not in my pajamas at home as I write this post, in case you’re wondering. I’m writing from my office at our PR agency, Middleton & Gendron, in Manhattan. I mention this because the media world (social and otherwise) has been buzzing like a beehive ever since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer implemented a new policy that eliminates telecommuting as an option for Yahoo staff.

I’ll start at the end — and say that I think Ms. Mayer made largely the right move (for Yahoo). I do think a better version of the decision would have been a “20% solution,” in which employees retained the option to telecommute at least 20% of the workweek (one day out of five, for any math-challenged PR folks like myself, or a 20% combination of flex hours). The “all or nothing” edict seems a little draconian, but by all accounts Ms. Mayer and Yahoo had a real problem on their hands.

It’s not as though the former Google executive, brought in to right the ship at Yahoo, was stepping in and ruffling feathers at a well-oiled machine. At the time of her appointment in July 2012, she was the sixth CEO at the company over the course of five years. The gradual decline in the 17-year-old company’s fortune is well known. A number of Yahoo’s 10,000-plus staffers were full-time telecommuters, rarely if ever setting foot in the company’s Sunnyvale, California, headquarters. 

For a company that many feel has lost its way, the importance of recalling the troops to band together with face-to-face meetings and spontaneous hallway brainstorming sessions seems to outweigh the benefits of telecommuting. Watching the passionate debate stirred up on social media and in the mainstream press has been fascinating, though. 

How dare Ms. Mayer — who had a nursery installed for her new baby next to her office at Yahoo headquarters — compel other mothers to come in to work when they very likely don’t have the same option (financially or via permission from supervisors)? A good question — though her defenders have looked at it from another angle. She took the reins as Yahoo CEO when pregnant and, realizing action to turn around the company’s fortunes just couldn’t wait, essentially skipped maternity leave and installed the nursery instead. Her new “work at work” edict does not eliminate maternity leave for others, of course. It’s designed to tackle a telecommuting policy that (as has been reported) Yahoo insiders admit was often abused.

Less emotionally charged aspects of the debate don’t have an easy answer. I read a recent post from a PR professional who acknowledged that she actually was more productive working from home, with fewer interruptions to her writing. There are days when that’s true for me, as well.

Another question is even more interesting. Would this passionate debate even be taking place if an incoming male CEO had made a similar decision? Whether the answer is yes or no, I do think Ms. Mayer should take a page from other leading companies that play in the online space (see Netflix) and acknowledge that she has listened to the reaction to her decision and has modified her position. She can stick to her guns in curtailing the practice of “full-time” telecommuting at Yahoo — but offer room for flexibility with the 20% solution. She’ll lose some employees that insist on full-time working from home. The rest will continue to earn some of the work/life flexibility that the technology Yahoo is founded on can offer. And they’ll be working for a stronger company.

What’s your experience? Does your company allow any form of telecommuting? Are you productive working at home?

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