A conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of Yahoo's new policy
Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss benefits and drawbacks of working from home. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.
So much has been made of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to end the company's telecommuting program that I'm reluctant to paddle about in the wash from its already-crested wave of online opprobrium. Instead—and in true Internet fashion!—I will constrain my reaction to the reaction. A fair amount of the criticism directed at Mayer has come from women (see: here, here, and here, though there are more examples), framed within a context that assumes eliminating telecommuting is anti-woman, and that more was to be expected of Mayer as a woman.
Speaking of women, my wife doesn't telecommute, but then again neither do I, nor have I ever worked in an office of sufficient benevolence to allow such arrangements. (Publishing: pick a curve—we're behind it.) Furthermore, if only one of us could telecommute, it's not evident which one it would be. At previous jobs, I have worked fewer hours than my wife, and I have also held a measure of control over which of those hours I apportioned to the office and how. I had flexibility—at times, yes, due to unemployment—which meant that when someone had to come home early to relieve our nanny, or head to work late because the very same (and much beloved) nanny got stuck in traffic, that someone was me. My current job is a candle-at-both-ends affair, so that is no longer the case.
All that means is that Yahoo's policy roils my employment anxieties in the same way it would my wife's (I say would: we haven't discussed it; too busy working). Yet I still understand the frustration women feel with Mayer. The traditional work environment was not, shall we say, created by or for women. It seems a reasonable expectation that a woman, finally able to seize authority to order a workplace, would, within the bounds of legal fairness and brazen profitability, do so in a way that benefits her gender. Men have, without regret or consequence, since long before the days of OSHA, the ERA, or Equal Employment Opportunity. That's why the day I become CEO (breath held, clock ticking, hell freezing), I intend to reinstitute three-martini lunches (stirred or shaken—freedom!), bequeath free baseball tickets to all (box seats for me), and stock the vending machines with cheeseburgers (I don't like cheeseburgers particularly; novelty vending—that I dig). Or, perhaps, though I rule via unchallenged decree and temperamental pique, I will nonetheless choose to install a nursery in my office, as Mayer has done, or enact flexible work scheduling, Scandinavian-style family leave, and improved wages. You never know.
A final thought: shortly after this began, NPR aired a segment assessing why firms like Yahoo might do away with telecommuting. Jerry Davis, a management professor at the University of Michigan, weighed in, espousing the pro-ass-in-office-swivel-chair perspective. He noted the workplace success that is "Free food Fridays" among his departmental colleagues, and deemed the coffee machine a "central holy site." (Must have good joe in Ann Arbor.) He conceded, of course, that telecommuting was "more efficient," but added that companies that permit it "lose that serendipity." Serendipity. Good old-fashioned serendipity. Gotta get me some of that!
Nothing against Davis, who wasn't really taking a side, but what's that serendipity stuff going for by the pound these days, exactly? Can you bottle it, package it, ship it book rate to the Coast? When serendipity at one's workplace flags, can you swap it out for a fresh supply of bonne chance? Or, as it seems to me, is serendipity no more than squishy and inchoate work-theory bunk wielded by those comfortable with the status quo but ill-equipped to defend it?