Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is tasked with reinvigorating a stagnant company.  She must look for every possible lever to boost Yahoo’s innovation. One of her strategies: bring people back to work. Stimulate creativity by bringing people back into direct face-to-face collaboration. No more telecommuting.

GASP.

Actually, I get the fury.  If I were telecommuting, I would hate this policy reversal. I might have to scramble to find new child care arrangements that I didn’t used to need and I can’t easily afford. It might actually make it impossible for me to stay in my job because I depended on being able to be home to care for family members. Or I might have to sit in horrendous Silicon Valley traffic for hours a day.  Or it might just take away the treasured convenience of working in my bunny slippers and changing loads of laundry while I work. Whether the impact is dire or just inconvenient to the folks at Yahoo, it’s real and it matters.

But I have problems with the criticisms that Mayer is getting.

  1. She has deprived employees of an inalienable right. Telecommuting is a corporate strategy, not an entitlement. If a company’s practice doesn’t support a company’s current circumstances or goals, it should be changed. If creativity is a strategic imperative for Yahoo now, and if Mayer thinks that face-to-face collaboration will accomplish or support that imperative, then she should try it. 
  2. She has betrayed ‘her kind’. One of the odd narratives arising is that, as a working mother, she owes it to other working mothers to let them work from home. After all, she is ‘one of us;’ she should know better. I find this puzzling and offensive. First of all, Mayer is a wealthy working mother; I question the assessment that she really is ‘one of us.’ She may actually not be as in touch with the financial and logistical impacts of the telecommuting ban as we think she should be. But it’s also possible that as a mother, she understands, as few CEOs do, exactly the sacrifice she’s asking working mothers to make. It’s possible that innovation is THAT important right now.

And let’s put this whole issue in a larger perspective. We still have an unemployment rate of 8%. We have hundreds of thousands of Federal workers facing furloughs and even termination. For the millions of people who are now or soon to be unemployed or underemployed, having to go into an office would be a pretty good problem to have.

I doubt this policy change would be news if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates were making it. It’s news because Melissa is making it. Because she’s a working mom, we expect her to be nice to other working moms. We expect her status as a working mother to soften the edges of her judgment, to let an assumed demographic affiliation trump the company’s need for innovation.

Really, 2013?