Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer’s Telecommuting Problem

The summer of 2010 was one of the most challenging months I’ve endured in my career.  I affectionately call it Ramadan boot camp, and let me tell you why.

I was working as the website content coordinator for Islamic Relief USA, one of the largest charity organizations in the U.S. Our central office was in Northern Virginia, but I worked fulltime in a telecommuting position 1.5 hours away in my home.

The telecommuting agreement came after back-and-forth negotiation. There were a few of us in 2010 that telecommuted for IRUSA. It was revisited, cautious territory, because some of their telecommuting employees had abused the privilege in the past.

IRUSA had parameters in place – there was a system we had to log into to record our hours. I set my hours – I worked 8 a.m.-2 p.m., then 4-6 p.m. (the 2-4 p.m. break was to accommodate my kids, who came home from school during that time) – this fulfilled the 8 hours/day; 40 hours/week requirement. But I worked way more than that, and my manager was well aware of that.

It was easy for them to know that I was working and not goofing off. There was standing meetings at least four times a week to which I’d have participate by video conference. I had daily and weekly deadlines, protocols to follow and emails that needed immediate attention, as in any job. We used Basecamp to track our projects.

That summer, I was one of the project leads for IRUSA’s annual Ramadan campaign, which is one of the organization’s biggest annual fundraising campaigns. The 2010 Ramadan campaign came on the heels of an ongoing fundraising campaign for Pakistan Flood Relief. In the weeks leading up to the campaign, our department manager prepped our team, telling us we would be working around the clock. Any personal time we would want to spend on self-reflection and worship would be devoted to the all-consuming work of the Ramadan campaign.

He wasn’t kidding. I worked 70+ hour weeks. Half of our department was IRUSA’s Southern California office, and the other half was in Northern Virginia. West coast emails would come at 11 p.m. PST and I would respond and do the work at 2 a.m. EST. It was insanity with no overtime pay. This was, after all, a charitable organization.

Consider the big reward, our managing editor would tell us. You are working for the sake of Allah. It was the only thing that kept me going.

Well, that and the fact that I was working from my own home. So, although I wasn’t spending any quality time with my kids during that summer break, I was home with them. Working from the home was the ONLY way it worked.

Telecommuting is my professional life. It’s how I’m able to work as an editor/journalist, and I am good at this kind of work. This life I live – parenting a son who is on the severe end of Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as two other “neurotypical” children with full and busy lives, a marriage to a physician with a demanding career, my own busy career as an editor, writer and journalist at large – this is a life that thrives due to the evolving nature of our national workforce – which has grown more family-friendly and open to telecommuting positions in recent years.

And so, it just galls me to no end to read how Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer, who first made waves for taking the high-ranking position when she was five months pregnant (and subsequently said two weeks of maternity leave, where she also worked from home, was enough time away from the office), declared in a memo to her employees that they would no longer be able to work from home.

Says the memo from HR director Jackie Rees:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”

To echo Huffington Post Parent’s Lisa Belkin – hell no. (OK, she didn’t write it like that, but I will.) Belkin covers quite well where Mayer is wrong and cites numerous studies that detail how flexibility on the job can increase worker productivity, health and morale. She also writes,

“I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I’d thought that while she was breaking some barriers — becoming the youngest woman CEO ever lead a Fortune 500 company, and certainly the first to do it while pregnant — she might take on the challenge of breaking a number of others. That she’d use her platform and her power to make Yahoo! an example of a modern family-friendly workplace. That she would embrace the thinking that new tools and technology deserve an equally new approach to where and how employees are allowed to work.

Instead she began by announcing that she would take just a two week maternity leave, which might have been all she needed, but which sent the message that this kind of macho-never-slowed-down-by-the-pesky-realities-of-life-outside-the-office was expected of everyone.

And now there’s this. Rather than championing a blending of life and work, she is calling for an enforced and antiquated division. She is telling workers — many of whom were hired with the assurance that they could work remotely — that they’d best get their bottoms into their office chairs, or else.”

Many other women are in agreement. Ju-Don Roberts, general manager and senior vice president at the wellness website Everyday Health, posted Belkin’s article on Facebook with this thought:

“Shortsighted? Those of us leading businesses or running newsrooms know that 9 to 5 is a fairytale. You are always working — before office hours, after office hours and even on vacations. So restricting off-site work because you’re trying to enforce cultural shifts is one thing (maybe there’s an unstated, underlying issue here); doing it for fear over lack of productivity is another. Having had the not-quite-a-luxury of working from home for an extended period of time while I was transitioning a business, I found that I ended up working even longer hours – blurring the lines between personal and professional time even more. There’s nothing isolated or unique about that behavior.”

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I’ve lived this telecommuting career for more than a decade for a variety of companies, including my current gig as the Managing Editor of the Muslim Channel and Editor-in-Chief of Altmuslim at Patheos (which is done in a part-time capacity). Telecommuting is a tough way to work with benefits and drawbacks. I waste no time in commuting. Our meetings are conducted via conference call and training sessions are easily accomplished over online meeting sites. We communicate with our writers via Facebook groups and old fashioned emails.

I don’t have to clock in my hours at Patheos. We are all adults, and it is easy to see if one is slipping in their jobs – metrics, fresh content, the ridiculously-fast paced world of online journalism and social media hound us at every turn.

Like Ju-Don says, the line between home and work is constantly blurred. I work between family activities, while the kids are in school, and while they are doing their homework. If I have a pressing deadline, I finish up after they go to bed. I’m checking work email while sitting at their soccer practices, promoting and scheduling our content on social media at all hours of the day. It doesn’t stop, whether you are fulltime or part time. And, not everyone can handle this kind of a schedule. But many can.

Mayer has her reasons. There certainly are instances when employees abuse telecommuting, when they are unable to focus on work while being in their home environment. (Read here for more insider information on why Mayer made this decision.) There is also something to be said for employees to all be in a central office — about the importance of face-to-face collaboration, impromptu collaboration. I do feel isolated at times by telecommuting. In jobs past, I’ve felt disconnected from the intimate workings of the office and felt at times that I was passed up for promotions or opportunities because I wasn’t physically there to advocate for myself. And I feel like there is no line of demarcation between home and work.

But, with all that, this is a great way to work. It can be done, and it can be done really well.

Her wanting to have a collaborative workspace that creates great products — I get that. (Read here for more praise of Mayer’s decision.) But also saying that speed and quality are often sacrificed when people telecommute — I take serious issue with that. Perhaps this is a Yahoo-telecommuting problem, not a telecommuting-in-general problem. People work and thrive in so many ways. Requiring everyone to be in the office may end up stifling creative genius for some.

This is a small world, folks, and there aren’t many women who hold such a position as Mayer. Her decisions and reasons, whether she likes it or not, is a reflection on the workplace. Maybe this is right for Yahoo, but don’t make telecommuting out to be the bad guy.

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