Monday 25 March 2013

Telecommuting, Marissa Mayer, and Working Mommies

This posting is a follow-up to "Marissa Mayer: Has the smoke cleared yet?" To better understand this opinion piece, you should read the other posting first.

Marissa Mayer is hired as CEO of Yahoo to turn around the floundering company. Discovering a problem with staff abusing the right to work remotely for the company, she rescinds all telecommuting. Every self-professed pundit about modern work practices, amateur and professional alike, goes ape-shit condemning this woman left, right, and center about her supposed blow against the hardships of today's workers especially today's working mothers.

How bizarre is this?

Mayer is raked over the coals but do the pundits do their homework? Out of the 14,100 employees at Yahoo, this only directly affects a couple of hundred or several hundred employees (depending on the source) who work remotely full-time. (Let's say "several hundred" means 500. That equals 3.6% of 14,100 employees). Others who may do some remote work part-time would also be affected but the point is this. Some bad apple remote workers were collecting a paycheck and doing nothing for it. The company is floundering. What would be the first thing to do to clean up Yahoo's act? Get rid of the bad apples.

Did any of the critics write about this? Did any of the critics know about this? Did any of the critics investigate this? Article after article cited anecdotal information about the success of telecommuting and based on this, condemned Marissa Mayer. Mayer was given the mandate to turn around a floundering company. Mayer is overseeing 14,100 employees. Not one, two, or three employees, but fourteen thousand. I don't see a single critic with any comparable work experience. It's one or two anecdotes against 14,100 employees.

A commentator to one magazine article (Marissa Mayer Has Made a Terrible Mistake) writes:

Putting aside all the well-stated arguments presented in this article, there is the obvious problem of environmental degradation. Every at-home worker is a worker who does not drive to work (polluting air), buy expensive "office clothes" (very polluting), etc. Clearly Yahoo does not care about this heavy burden it is now going to place on the environment. I will not be using Yahoo again for any purposes. Glad to be with GOOGLE --- plan to stay there.

Marissa Mayer worked at Google for thirteen years. She apparently was very successful there. She is bringing a lot of talent to Yahoo, a floundering company. So what's at Google? From the Los Angeles Times:

"The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?' And our answer is: 'As few as possible,'" Patrick Pichette, Google's chief financial officer, said recently. "There is something magical about spending the time together."

Now let me get this straight. The commentator is not going to use Yahoo because of what Marissa Mayer did and is staying with Google. She talks about a "heavy burden" on the environment but mentions nothing about this touching only a small percentage of the entire workforce. She talks about Yahoo not caring but mentions nothing about the abuses on the part of telecommuters. She states she is going to stay with Google not realising that Google practices what Mayer just implemented: minimise telecommuting in order to develop a collaborative environment.

Lisa Belkin
A number of bloggers went off on a rant about bad Ms. Mayers while quoting Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post (Marissa Mayer's Work-From-Home Ban Is The Exact Opposite Of What CEOs Should Be Doing). Ms. Belkin with self-proclaimed authority bases her condemnation of Mayer on some studies mixed with anecdotal evidence. The entire article is a spirited diatribe against all things anti working mommy. This isn't a factual assessment of Yahoo and its current situation as a "floundering" company and its workforce problems. This isn't a detailed look at telecommuting and when it works and when it doesn't work. This is all about a perceived slight to working mothers.

Telecommuting? I note that the condemners of Mayer do not talk about jobs like waitress, retail sales, doctor, lawyer, nurse, plumber, assembly line worker, plant manager, teacher, school principal, bank teller, bank manager, farmer, etc. all of whom do work that cannot be carried out by telecommuting. For some reason the critics of Mayer have zeroed in on a segment of the workforce involved in information services who may under certain circumstances do work remotely. Yes a web developer may telecommute but what percentage of the workforce is involved in web development full-time? How many working mothers are web developers? How much of a web developer's work can be done telecommuting and at what point does he or she need to collaborate with the users?

Google has total assets of $94 billion with revenue of $50 billion. Does anybody not think these people know what they're doing? I repeat from the Los Angeles Times:

"The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?' And our answer is: 'As few as possible,'" Patrick Pichette, Google's chief financial officer, said recently. "There is something magical about spending the time together."

Need I remind everybody that Mayer worked at Google for 13 years and was by all accounts very successful? Google minimises telecommuting to foster a collaborative environment and Mayer is attempting to do the same thing at Yahoo.

Some analysis
Let me look at Wikipedia's article on Telecommuting and delve into some details.

Wikipedia: Telecommuting
Telecommuting, remote work, or telework is a work arrangement in which employees do not commute to a central place of work.
According to a Reuters poll, approximately "one in five workers around the globe, particularly employees in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, telecommute frequently and nearly 10 percent work from home every day".

While at face value, some of the numbers tossed around would give the reader the impression we can all have a better life through telecommuting, a little digging into the details reveals a number of issues about getting from where we are to the paradise Lisa Belkin seems to be talking about.

Telecommuting is for "information workers". If you're a waitress, your job entails being on the job unless somebody has figured out how you can serve me my hamburger remotely. (Wikipedia Reference)

The discussion doesn't make any distinction between businesses. Yes, a worker in a call centre can probably do all of their work remotely; they can telecommute 100% of the time. But a member of a team, a collaboration (Where have I heard that before?), will require more face time.

There are trade-offs. Staying at home may reduce power consumption at the office but then residential power consumption goes up. Yes, there is a reduction in transportation but is that reduction significant in the big picture? Wikipedia quotes a study (Wikipedia Reference): In a future scenario with pervasive adoption of teleworking, where 50% of information workers telecommute 4 days per week, United States and Japan national energy savings are estimated at only about 1% in both cases. Okay, I grant you that 1% is 1%. It's better than nothing but let's not get the idea that the heavens are going to open up and we'll all hear a choir singing. Besides, this is a future scenario. How to get from here to there?

Yes, you telecommuted today and didn't have to drive to work. That's you. One person. But what about the big picture? The really big picture?

my blog: Let's go green... er, black?
A couple of years ago, I was reading an analysis in the editorial pages of the Toronto Star where the author [looked] at our green efforts. He listed off our various initiatives in North America like changing traditional light bulbs to more energy efficient ones, getting more green appliances, turning off unnecessary lights and dimming others, etc. Then he said that these types of efforts, while laudable were laughable when one took into account that at that moment, China was constructing a new coal-fired electrical power generating station every week. All of our light bulbs were dwarfed by the new developments elsewhere in the world which were leading to even higher levels of pollution.

Yes, you telecommuted today and didn't have to drive to work. Lucky you. But the big picture? What about the waitresses, bank tellers, teachers, and God knows who else whose job requires them to be on the job?

My Opinion
I have worked in I.T. for almost 30 years supporting the government, insurance, and financial sectors. I have developed and offered to staff various means to telecommute. I look at these anti-Mayer harangues and I have to shake my head. What exactly does everybody think telecommuting is? Do people know when to use it and when not to use it? Do people think this is carte blanche to work at home one hundred percent of the time? As I pointed out above with a list of various jobs, life balance is not going to come from telecommuting because the nature of the job requires the employee to be on-site.

"For the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."
-Jackie Reese, director of HR, Yahoo!

I am sure there are dinosaur companies out there who behave like ogres to their employees. I am sure there are telecommuting opportunities out there which are passed up for numerous reasons. All of us must continue the good fight. But I can't help feeling that the backlash to Mayer has been anything but objective. I can't help feeling that women have piled on Mayer precisely because she is a woman and this decision has somehow betrayed the great feminine cause. I wonder if this hasn't completely muddied the waters about Yahoo, the problems of a mismanaged workforce, and just what the heck telecommuting is good for.

Marissa Mayer came from Google, a company with nearly 54,000 employees. Wouldn't you think that she knows the big picture better than the rest of the armchair generals and Monday morning quarterbacks? This decision isn't about Molly the Mother; it is about Freddy the Freeloader. If I interpret "several hundred" full-time remote employees as five hundred employees, that is only 3.6% of Yahoo's total workforce. That means 96.4% are showing up to work. My research uncovered that long-term Yahoo employees were lauding this decision saying it's been a long time coming and it's about time somebody got rid of the abusers.

I read the quote above by Jackie Reese, head of HR at Yahoo, and I see what I've seen for the last 30 years of my career. Parent teacher night this evening? Go home early and take care of things. Johnny has a dental appointment first thing in morning? Take care of business then come in to work. The household has come down with the flu? Heavens, please I beg you to not come in and infect everybody else. This is what I consider to be normal. Family-friendly? Reasonable? No ogres here. We're all adults and everybody is assumed to be responsible. But note that nobody is getting carte blanche. This still is a team effort and collaboration is an important part of the work. Yes, occasionally working from home gives a few hours of uninterrupted work. Yes an entire day at home means meeting a deadline. But let's not confuse apples and oranges. Business is a collaborative effort which is enhanced by telecommuting and every business is different. Yes businesses in the information services area which rely on computers are more than likely to use telecommuting but there is a big difference between a call centre with workers spread out across the country (almost 100% telecommuting) and a team of specialists at Yahoo working together (collaborating!) to invent the next big thing.

Final Word
I investigate the Marissa Mayer story and I think about my own work career. I then read Lisa Belkin and have to conclude that this writer didn't do her homework and doesn't know what she talking about. Once again I see people jumping to unfounded conclusions, misinterpreting events, and disseminating misinformation, second-hand opinions, and rumours and innuendo. All for what? I am betting that not one of these people actually works at Yahoo, the Great Satan. I'm betting not one of these people works at Google, the great saviour even though Google currently does what Mayer is attempting to do. I am betting the majority of these armchair generals cite online studies with little or no practical experience about the issues at hand.

Do I think the job market is fair between men and women? No, I do not. Things are better but there is still a long way to go. Do I think women are paid the same as men? No, I do not. Things are better but there is still a long way to go. I do think though this entire discussion has not been an objective assessment of reality. I believe that this entire story has somehow imparted the idea that telecommuting is the savior for every working mommy. It's not. If you're a waitress, you're not serving me my hamburger through a computer terminal. If you're bank teller, plumber, nurse, or teacher, you are not going to phone it in. Yes I think telecommuting is great but it is not a panacea and it only is valuable under certain circumstances. And for anybody who wants to quote me chapter and verse about such and such a study which says Mary-Joe of Scottsbluff, Nebraska works by telecommuting, I would like to ask what you're doing for Betty-Lou of Scottsbluff, Nebraska who works as a waitress down at the ABC Diner. Fortunately Betty-Lou's boss understands she is a single mom with three kids and gives her a flexible schedule.

I will close with a warning. The Internet, remote access, and personal devices (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.) give us what we perceive as freedom. In reality, things change. We are now plugged in twenty-four by seven. The old saying was that you didn't have a job, you had a career. My joke is that I don't have a career, I have a life style. Yes, twenty-four by seven we are plugged in and that's means we are responding to colleagues and their questions, requests for information or for assistance. We are taking laptops and devices on vacation and yes, after we come back from the latest organised tour of ancient ruins or a swim in the resort's pool, we are checking to see if anybody has emailed us. My pay is based on 7.5 hours per day, 5 days per week. I have never worked just 7.5 hours per day or just 5 days a week. Never. Freedom? Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.


my blog: Marissa Mayer: Has the smoke cleared yet?
Yahoo! has 14,100 employees. That's a lot of employees. I wonder what they're all doing. Marissa Mayer makes a decision and public vilifies her for it. Hmmm, do I know what's going on at Yahoo? Is Mayer's decision a threat to working mommies everywhere? Does Mayer deserve the scorn of the world? 14,100 employees. Hmmm, I wonder what they're all doing.

Wikipedia: Google
Google Inc. is an American multinational corporation that provides Internet-related products and services, including internet search, cloud computing, software and advertising technologies.

Google has total assets of $94 billion with revenue of $50 billion.

Wikipedia: Yahoo!
Yahoo! Inc. is an American multinational internet corporation headquartered in Sunnyvale, California. It is widely known for its web portal, search engine Yahoo! Search, and related services, including Yahoo! Directory, Yahoo! Mail, Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo! Groups, Yahoo! Answers, advertising, online mapping, video sharing, fantasy sports and its social media website. It is one of the most popular sites in the United States.

Yahoo has total assets of $17 billion with revenue of $5 billion.

Babble Voices - Dec 1/2012
Marissa Mayer’s “Easy Baby” Isn’t Fussing…So Why Is Everyone Else? By Asha Dornfest
I rarely disagree with Lisa Belkin’s parenting commentary; I love her intelligent, thoughtful writing in this space which so often runs amok with hype. But this time, I have to speak up.

Liberating Working Moms - Dec 3/2012
Dear Lisa Belkin: Please Leave Marissa Mayer Alone By Tracy
Last week I read a Huffington Post article ragging on Marissa Mayer, CEO of yahoo, for saying that her baby has been “easy” and transitioning back to work has been fine. The first time I gleaned it, I couldn’t finish reading it. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was cringing. Was I upset with Mayer or was I upset with Lisa Belkin, the author of the article. I took a step back and realized it was the latter. Belkin just seems so damn bitter, taking it out on Mayer.

NY Times - Feb 26/2013
Get Off Your Cloud by Maureen Dowd
Now Mayer has caused another fem-quake with a decision that has a special significance to working mothers. She has banned Yahoos, as her employees are known, from working at home (which some of us call “working” at home).
Mayer’s bold move looks retro and politically incorrect, but she may feel the need to reboot the company culture, harness creativity, cut deadwood and discipline slackers before resuming flexibility.
Maybe as Mayer rejuvenates “the grandfather” of Internet companies, as she calls Yahoo, she needs the energy and synergy of a start-up mentality.

Lisa Belkin: Huffington Post, Feb 23/2013
The following analyses some of Ms. Belkin's article "Marissa Mayer's Work-From-Home Ban Is The Exact Opposite Of What CEOs Should Be Doing".

Marissa Mayer's Work-From-Home Ban Is The Exact Opposite Of What CEOs Should Be Doing
-Lisa Belkin

From the Los Angeles Times above, it would seem Patrick Pichette, Google's chief financial officer, disagrees with you, Ms. Belkin.

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," says the memo from HR director Jackie Reses, and reprinted by Kara Swisher on last night. "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

No. It doesn't.
-Lisa Belkin

No, it doesn't? Ms. Belkin, by what authority do you make that statement? Patrick Pichette disagrees with you. Long-term employees at Yahoo disagree with you. I disagree with you. You then start talking about 40 years ago, 20 years ago, and citing studies to prove your point but never address the issue of apples and oranges. Yes, working at home means you get a report completed on time without the daily interruptions at the office. But if you are inventing the next big thing which comes from collaboration, you don't do that remotely.

I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I'd thought that while she was breaking some barriers -- becoming the youngest woman CEO ever lead a Fortune 500 company, and certainly the first to do it while pregnant -- she might take on the challenge of breaking a number of others.
-Lisa Belkin

Ms. Belkin, why do you never discuss Yahoo as a floundering company? Why do you never mention long-term employees saying a shake-up was in order? Why do you not touch upon the abuses of the system?

That she'd use her platform and her power to make Yahoo! an example of a modern family-friendly workplace.
-Lisa Belkin

Mayer is doing what Google does. Is Google not family-friendly? Do you have proof? Is telecommuting your only criteria for judging "family-friendly"?

That she would embrace the thinking that new tools and technology deserve an equally new approach to where and how employees are allowed to work.
-Lisa Belkin

Ms. Belkin, I repeat. Mayer is doing at Yahoo what Google does. These companies are worth billions of dollars. With all due respect, I'm not sure I see on your résumé the necessary qualifications for criticising companies with this level of success.

Rather than championing a blending of life and work , she is calling for an enforced and antiquated division. She is telling workers -- many of whom were hired with the assurance that they could work remotely -- that they'd best get their bottoms into their office chairs, or else.
-Lisa Belkin

By my calculation, 96.4% (based on 500 full-time remote employees) to 98.6% (200 full-time remote employees) show up for work, maybe not 100% of the time but they do show up. "Many of whom were hired with the assurance that they could work remotely"? First of all, I see nothing in your article, Ms. Belkin that could in any way be construed as objective, demonstrative, and verifiable proof that such a statement is in any way true. Did you interview all 14,100 employees? Do you have secret information from the HR department? I am calling you out on that statement. You're making this up. I don't care about such and such a study about telecommuting in general; I want facts taken right from Yahoo's hiring agreements.

Championing a blending of life and work? Ms. Belkin, your idea of telecommuting seems quite confused. When we are talking about remote work at all, just what are we talking about? In my experience, everybody works remotely at one time or another but in an environment where collaboration is the cornerstone of the business, nobody works remotely on a regular basis. I have never seen it as so and so works from home every Friday. But it is important to make a distinction here between businesses. A call centre business does not need workers to be in a central location. As Wikipedia points out in its references, in India workers may be spread out over the country working from their own home. But in a collaborative team effort, there is a greater tendency to see people working together. Yes, there may be technical people working on the other side of the planet in a software development project but in giving such an example, I am afraid any reader is going to be thinking like you that everybody is doing it. I repeat that Betty-Lou the waitress is not serving me my hamburger though a computer terminal.

I could go on and on but in a nutshell, Ms. Belkin, I find your article a rant against all things anti working mommy. I do not find your assessment of Marissa Mayer and what's going on at Yahoo to be fair, balanced, and objective. Pick your fights wisely. Signing the VAWA, ensuring equal pay for the same work without gender discrimination, supporting Obamacare and health benefits for all American citizens, voting down Conservative ideology which is against abortion, birth control, and sex education, promoting flexible work schedules, and yes advocating for telecommuting when appropriate (!!!) are issues far more important to women and working mothers (oh heck, to all of us!) than Marissa Mayer and her attempt to weed out the freeloaders abusing the generosity of Yahoo and get a floundering company turned around.


Site Map - William Quincy BelleFollow me on Twitter

No comments: