Monday, February 25, 2013

The Trouble With Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer, the current CEO of the struggling Yahoo! corporation, has come under fire recently for a memo released by the company’s internal HR department. The announcement was simple: Yahoo would no longer allow their workers to work from home.

In and of itself, of course, this is mildly interesting news. Companies have come under increased pressure, for a variety of reasons, to allow some form of remote working. Various studies have also shown that it generally increases productivity as well. For many companies, especially newer companies with short legacies of their corporate culture, the transition has been relatively easy. (Obviously it depends on the type of work you are doing, but especially for tech companies remote working is fairly conducive for the industry.)

However, for Mayer, it’s a little more complicated. Being a relatively young female CEO of a tech company was newsworthy enough; the fact that she was pregnant at the time she took the position even more so. Many people heralded it as a welcome change to the generally male-dominated industries and would, perhaps, bring about a fresh new look at how workers interacted with the workplace.

Remote working, of course, has long been sold as a solution to the working parent. If a child is sick or there are appointments to attend, working from home or on the road can make the work/life balance much more manageable. And as businesses shift toward a more information-centered economy and the need for interaction becomes less important, it’s a change that generally makes sense. Telecommuncation tools have improved so well that entire departments can work effectively even though they are worlds apart.

So that is why it’s shocking that Yahoo—a relatively new company with a young and presumably forward-looking CEO—would take a step backwards in this regard. To be fair, Yahoo is in pretty sad shape; it has an identity problem with little in the way of future prospects, but it’s still a fairly big player in the industry.
However, the subtext of this move appears to be that productivity is lagging due to remote working, and as a company teetering towards irrelevance they can’t afford to have unproductive employees on the payroll. At this point, cracks start to appear in the veneer of the entire organization.  

As I mentioned above, studies have shown that working from home tends to increase productivity. There’s a variety of reasons for that—usually letting folks manage their time without the normal distractions of the workplace ends up being a net gain—but it’s not hard to think that there is a little bit of selection bias here. The people most likely granted approval to work from home have also proved themselves to be competent workers; if you let everyone do it, you’ll no doubt find the usual percentage of slackers who will ruin it for everyone, just as you do in-office. (I'm also not naive enough to think that even the most trustworthy and efficient workers use remote working as an excuse to slack off on occasion, but the entire enterprise usually ends up being a benefit.)

And here is where the usual snake-oil concept of management science starts to fall apart. In theory, a move like Mayer’s would increase productivity—those who are not in a position to work in the office will leave (rumor has it many of these individuals were promised remote working when they took the job, and now have to move), and those that are are too scared to start. Meanwhile, while some of the productivity killers will fall off, it hits everyone across the board. That’s the worst parts of that sort of management: punishing everyone equally with no regard to their actual productivity. A company who has an effective management in place would never see this as a problem. If your supervisor sees that you are unproductive, it’s part of their job to see why and take the appropriate action. If a remote work program is fostered properly--setting up appropriate guidelines and easily accessible benchmarks for performance and a fair and regular check on those who are abusing the system--there's no reason why it can't be a valid choice for everyone involved. If you are a manager and you have no idea if your employees are working or not, that's a fault of management, not just the employee.

A move like this from Mayer reeks of fear: instead of fostering the sort of atmosphere to allow creativity and productivity, she ignores a failing management style for the sake of a brute-force destruction of promises and job satisfaction. These are the sorts of steps you take when the ship starts sinking, not as a positive first step towards prosperity.

I won’t lie and say there’s a bit of hypocrisy in this entire episode that fills me with a little schadenfreude; feminists hailing her as a role model all of a sudden are trying to absolve her of blame when she single-handedly takes away one of the more potent tools for working parents. 

The Pledge: Make no mistake: Marissa Mayer has made it more difficult for working moms to keep their jobs at Yahoo. Stating anything else is a blatant falsehood. Still, it proves one thing for feminists: women can be just as shitty of a manager as men.

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