Raising Richmond: Yahoo!…?

A local parent shares her thoughts on Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent telecommuting ban–and drops some first-hand knowledge on approaching the work-from-home issue with your employer.

Shortly after my son was born prematurely, I tried to negotiate a flexible work arrangement with my place of employment. Unexpectedly overwhelmed with the care of a high-needs baby and facing a daily two-hour round trip commute, I hoped we could reach a compromise. I loved my job, but I also loved my new family and I didn’t want to force a choice between the two. I’ve always been a hard worker and assumed that my talent and potential would trump any concerns related to a flexible work arrangement.

My request was denied immediately.

I felt betrayed and helpless and even a little bit angry.

Maybe a lot angry.

After a long weekend of running numbers and looking at schedules, my husband and I made the decision that was best for our family at that time: I quit the job I loved. I fully believe that I would still be with that company if they simply had been willing to let me work from home for part of the week.

So when the news broke that Marissa Mayer eliminated work-from-home options at Yahoo!, I wanted to feel betrayed. I wanted to be angry. Instead…I find myself defending her. Employees are not entitled to flexible work arrangements, though I think they are great solutions to balancing the needs of work and family and attracting talent. And if Marissa Mayer were named “Mark”? This would not be a news event.

Female CEOs are not required to be crusaders for the feminist cause, as much as I wish they were. It would be a tectonic shift if women in the C-suite could always prioritize the needs of other women in their company, but isn’t their first responsibility to make sure there’s a company to support in the first place? Mayer wasn’t hired to redefine the rules for working moms and dads; she was hired to turn around a flailing brand that is, at best an afterthought. If she thinks the company needs all hands in the office, they probably do. At least until we’re all using “yahooing” as a verb for Internet searches, I’m cutting her some slack.

As for me, I eventually found a job I love that is flexible around the needs of my family. In case you’re a mom or dad in a situation similar to mine, here are a few tips for helping to negotiate the best arrangement for you.

— ∮∮∮ —

Don’t assume

I made the mistake of thinking my history of hard work would make a difference when asking for a flexible work arrangement–I always worked hard whether I was at home, in the office, or traveling. But this was mostly irrelevant. What it really came down to in the end was my job description and the day-to-day needs of my team, and they determined they needed someone in my role in the office every day.

Be prepared

Don’t wait to discuss your options. If you’re expecting a baby or your family has changing needs that may require reworking your schedule, research your options and be proactive. Anything can happen, and the more time you have to address possibilities, the better your outcome. The more time you have to sell yourself as an excellent candidate for a flexible work arrangement, the better.

Understand that there are limits

Be aware of what your company’s culture and policies are and don’t expect an exception to be made for you. If your company doesn’t allow working from home, don’t think they will change the rules for you.

Be honest

I’m now often asked how I found a job that allows for flexibility. The simple answer is that I asked for it. When I decided to go back to work, my cover letter explained what my needs and expectations (within reason) were. If you want to employ this strategy, be aware that some employers might not give you a second look. Interviewers can’t ask about your family situation, and most HR professionals will tell you that bringing up your kids or spouse in an interview is a big no-no. However, I ignored this directive and was completely honest, HR professionals be damned. I wanted employers to get the entire picture of me as a person, and I didn’t ever want to have to choose between family and career again.

I am both a talented employee AND a parent. It’s entirely possible to find a space where those two things can coexist, but you have to know how and where to find it.

Photo by: eric hayes

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Kristin Jimison

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I find this article disappointing for a few reasons.

    First, the relationship of telecommuting to feminism is, at very best, tangential. The issue with Mayer installing a nursery in her office has more to do with class privilege than male/female privilege. The failure of the author to disentangle the class issue from the managerial issue is telling — of course nobody expects a woman to sacrifice her interests for the feminist cause! Red herring.

    The real issue here is people seeing telecommuting as an employee perk, something you get on merit or as an incentive. That’s wrong, since it has little to do with the organization’s workings, the people in the organization, management’s practices, or the nature of the work. Organizations that embrace and mold themselves around the realities of remote work often do well (see Github) but they need to be remote organizations, where telecommuting is central to the culture and not simply an afterthought or a bone thrown to workers.

    When this is understood — that telecommuting is a choice of management strategy, and not a perk designed to further feminism or placate employees — then the thesis of this article is rendered rather beside the point. The problem with Mayer isn’t that she is insufficiently furthering feminism or telecommuting, but that she’s making a decision that can hardly be expected to be informed. How well does she understand the work at Yahoo!, the people, her managers’ styles, etc.? More likely that this is a layoff by any other name, not a serious culture shift she’s choosing.

    We give CEOs far too much credit. They don’t have some secret sauce that makes them better or worse than others. That’s why they’re on a revolving door around corporate fiefdoms (and why the issue of privilege needs to be addressed, instead of just telling employees to suck it up). Yahoo! is not Google, and simply doing what Google did is exactly the kind of faux-decision that betrays how little she understands her own organization well enough to make any decision like this. She’ll get her golden parachute either way.

    Employees should fight for the work conditions that help them do their job best, which is usually why people (including the author) want to work remotely. The real question is what types of work, and what types of management, suite remote work best. CEOs in their ivory towers are the last people to think about these kinds of issues, because they’re so far removed from the actual work done by actual people that they are little but symbolic lords of the manor, faces to give these corporate entities some sort of personality.

  2. Andrea Goulet Ford on said:

    Having recently gone through an experience similar to the author after the birth of my son, I found great comfort in this article. Leaving a job I loved because it didn’t have the flexibility I needed was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made.

    This is a complex issue about the changing face of feminism (which the author explained — when the CEO takes a two week maternity leave, it definitely sends the message that work is more important than family), socioeconomic factors (which Jeremy pointed out) and generational value differences (I’m throwing this one in. http://laurakassner.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/infographic-making-women-happy-in-the-workplace/)

    I don’t think CEOs are limiting telecommuting to squash their workers happiness. I think any CEO would welcome the benefits of happier, more productive, and more loyal employees that flexible work arrangements provide. Instead, I think CEOs react to fear with control-based solutions, which is a very human response. Fear makes us do some crazy, irrational things. The idea that you can manage workers better on-site is an illusion and a reaction to the fear of loss.

    As for Yahoo!, I think this is the beginning of the end. Not because the arrangement is good or bad, but because the abrupt change is a shock to the culture. The situation is often compared to Google because of Mayer’s experience there. But it worked at Google because its employees knew what they were signing up for. Creating a sweeping, across-the-board ultimatum will ensure that Yahoo!’s best talent walks out their door and into the open arms of their competition.

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