Marissa Mayer's Job Is to Be CEO—Not to Make Life Easier for Working Moms

Her decision to ban telecommuting is deeply unpopular, but it could be necessary to save the company she's been hired to lead.

Henny Ray Abrams/AP Images

So Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at Yahoo, telling her employees they either had to work in the office or quit. The howls of protest went up at such a deeply anti-family policy, particularly in the proudly family-friendly (at least rhetorically) Silicon Valley. How on earth could the first pregnant CEO, with a young baby and a nursery in her office, deny her employees the ability to work with their children nearby?

I obviously understand the concerns, given that I'm writing a book on the coming work-family revolution and the steps we must all take to bring it about. But hang on. Marissa Mayer is a CEO first and a woman second. Indeed, she is a role model for many precisely because she made it to the top job. And as a CEO, her first job is to save her company. If she fails in that, the employees she is insisting come in to the office will have no jobs to come in to.

Let's look at this decision a different way. According to one ex-"Yahoo" (the way Yahoo employees describe themselves, which may be one thing that needs to change) who was quoted in Business Insider, "For what it's worth, I support the no working from home rule. There's a ton of abuse of that at Yahoo. Something specific to the company."

The source also said Yahoo's large remote workforce led to "people slacking off like crazy, not being available, and spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo! projects."

Another source who spoke to Kara Swisher at All Things D reported that Mayer had tried the carrot approach by offering free food and iPhones (!) at work, but was getting nowhere, as she saw Yahoo employees coming in later and leaving earlier than employees at other Silicon Valley competitors.

Any leader who has had to transform a company or an institution understands that culture change is essential. People have to think differently about their jobs and their employers before they will do their jobs differently. Moreover, when a ship is going down, it is not unreasonable to demand all hands on deck. Mayer tried to go with the existing telecommuting policy, which apparently works elsewhere in Silicon Valley, but concluded that it was contributing to the culture that she needed to change. That does not mean she will not return to that policy if and when Yahoo! recovers. And in the meantime, I for one hope to see much more on-site day care on Yahoo!'s premises.

In particular, Mayer is trying to rebuild a sense of common enterprise. The memo she sent out to employees said: "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." Even strong supporters of flexible telecommuting policies worry about what the Boston Globe's Beth Teitell calls the "team dynamic." To illustrate, Teitell quotes the president of a Cambridge-based social media marketing firm: ""Do they get the same personal fulfillment sitting at home in their bathrobe? I don't think they do." Connecting directly with each other face to face is energizing and mobilizing in ways that asynchronous communication cannot match. We spark off each other and when we have the right environment and the right leaders, we sub-consciously align ourselves as part of a common enterprise.

Like countless workers who have lit up Twitter and Facebook with discussions of Mayer's decision, I am in the camp of those who could not possibly do what I do and be a fully engaged parent without the ability to work from home as I need to. But I am deeply self-motivated, and have always generally worked with employees who are equally self-motivated. Once that motivation and sense of common enterprise are lost, drastic measures may well be needed to regain them.

So let's withhold judgment for a while and let Marissa Mayer do her job. Let's evaluate her on whether she can turn Yahoo around. If her instincts are right, and she has to bring everyone back together on site to get the company going in a profitable and sustainable direction, then we will have to adjust our perceptions of when telecommuting makes sense and when it may not. If results really improve, then we have a much harder time convincing the many employers who are afraid of deeply flexible policies to change. If Mayer is wrong, then we will have time enough to dissect the reasons why, and Mayer herself will join the numerous ranks of former Yahoo CEOs.