Can’t Escape the Cubicle

Marissa Mayer's decision to cut back on Yahoo employees working from home has created quite a stir. This morning, Maureen Dowd pointed out the hypocrisy of Mayer putting in a nursery in the office for herself, while she made it more difficult for other parents who are lower down on the corporate ladder to juggle parenting responsibilities and work. 

Dowd is right. Mayer isn't the only hypocrite. Sheryl Sandberg who exhorts women to stay in the office, also doesn't recognize that her huge salary and boss-like perks enables her to manage a job and still be home for dinner at 5:30. I don't want to hear any work-family advice from people like Mayer and Sandberg. 

Now, let's talk about working from home. The basic issue is trust. Do you trust your workers to really work when they are at home? If your workers have to process 50 reams of paperwork in one day and they get it done while wearing their PJs at home, it should be fine, right? But it doesn't work that way. 

When Steve first started working his Wall Street job, there was a lot of talk about workplace flexibility. He attended training sessions on workplace flexibility. A few of his co-workers negotiated arrangements where they were at home for three days a week. Steve only worked from home one or two times a year, but it was a nice arrangement for emergencies. He said that he got more work done at home, because there were less distractions. 

And then the recession happened. The workers who worked from home regularly were fired first. When Steve asked if he could work from home one day (the first request in two years), he was actually yelled at. The trust was gone. Fewer workers were doing twice the work, and their bosses felt that they needed to be monitored at all times. 

Truly, this move by Mayer has nothing to do with creating incubators of ideas or the particular needs of Yahoo. It has everything to do with the erosion of trust between workers and management in a crappy economy. This move is one of hostility towards working parents, no question about that. But it is also a hostile move towards ALL workers. Terribly disgusted. 

 

UPDATE FROM THE COMMENT SECTION: 

I come from the academic world, where working from home is the norm. People go to the university three days a week and then work from home two days. They have plenty of flexibility. Some work better in the morning; others work better in the evening. Everybody gets their shit done eventually. There is still plenty of face to face time to network and all that. It is totally weird for me to see workplaces that expect that a butt is glued to one chair for 40 to 60 hours a week.

As I said in my last blog post, my kids have been sick on and off for two and half weeks. Plus, they had a whole week off from school. This is the first day in ages that I haven't had a kid in the house. This is why I'm slogging away at the freelance writing career, when I could be making better money elsewhere. I am unemployable in a Marissa Mayer world.

 

39 thoughts on “Can’t Escape the Cubicle

  1. I completely agree that it’s about all workers. I think parents do themselves a disservice if they frame it that way. Yes, work-life balance is harder when you have kids for a lot of reasons, but you do need childcare for the hours you work (commuting hours are a different story).

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  2. Hmm, well, I would say trust goes hand-in-hand with a boss’s ability to gauge productivity. If your boss is very clear on how much you’re producing, then they will care much less about where the tasks are accomplished. A good example of this is salespeople, notorious for going off-grid. But their productivity is easily measured by sales numbers so it’s tolerated more. But if the boss is less clear? For example if the goal is more nebulous than sales numbers, something like “let’s work together to create the Next Big App”? How do you measure that? And how do you create urgency within your workforce? Clearly Mayer has decided it can’t really be measured, and just as importantly, that people aren’t taking it seriously. So they need to show up every day.
    I don’t agree with Mayer’s decision, and it does indeed penalize parents (mothers) more than others. But Yahoo is not exactly at the top of its game, and I can see where she would feel drastic measures are called for.

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  3. If Yahoo is in as sad a shape as people say, all of these people from bottom to top will eventually lose their jobs. In which case, talking about Marissa Mayer’s office nursery is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. (I know it’s a terrible cliche, but “installing an office nursery at Yahoo” hasn’t caught on yet as an alternative.)

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  4. I had a few reactions to the blow-back from this news.
    First, I find it interesting that because women are CEOs we are shocked that they are blind to their own privilege. To me this is a CEO/high level executive thing and I think it’s unfair of us to expect women to behave differently than men. Sure it would be nice, but executives are executives.
    Second, I agree with you that this is something that affects all workers and the fact that women were highlighted really pushed my buttons. Working from home is not a solution – paid sick leave, real parental leave and flexible hours should be instituted in its place.
    Lastly, as a computer scientist with experience at a big technology company, I think it’s not just a trust issue. I’ve never worked in any other field, but when it comes to computer algorithms and programming, you really need to work with other people, whether you’re designing code, writing it, or testing it. While the open source model works well for some things, it can be far less efficient than having everyone on campus. Even as a scientist, which is largely independent work, I am more efficient in the lab because a) my colleagues and I share code/technology updates and b) the network is faster.
    Well, that and if I work from home I’m compelled to clean/do laundry/sort through baby clothes, which just distracts me.

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  5. I come from the academic world, where working from home is the norm. People go to the university three days a week and then work from home two days. They have plenty of flexibility. Some work better in the morning, others work better in the evening. Everybody gets their shit done eventually. There is still plenty of face to face time to network and all that. It is totally weird for me to see workplaces that expect that a butt is glued to one chair for 40 to 60 hours a week.
    As I said in my last blog post, my kids have been sick on and off for two and half weeks. Plus, they had a whole week off from school. This is the first day in ages that I haven’t had a kid in the house. This is why I’m slogging away at the freelance writing career, when I could be making better money elsewhere. I am unemployable in a Marissa Mayer world.

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  6. I just can’t reason beyond the hypocrisy of having a nursery at the office, but not letting employees work from home next to their nurseries. There are many ways to determine whether a worker is productive from home. Mayer should have tried measuring productivity first.

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  7. People act like Marissa Mayer putting in a nursery means she’s taking care of her kid! I guarantee you she has at least 2 nannies and put it there so she might get to see the kid for 15 minutes at lunch and she probably did it so she could breastfeed her baby when she went back to work at 1 month or whatever it is. And she’s there all weekend when not going to events. I seriously doubt she is ever playing with her kid for an hour.
    I think this is a terrible move but I’ll just say I know of someone who for a long time took advantage of her work from home situation…her partner and her clearly didn’t understand that that meant that they also had to have child care that day, that it wasn’t a way to save on child care.
    What working from home does mean is the parent has a shot in hell of getting to an afterschool activity, seeing the teacher in person, or dealing with a city permit or something.
    I wonder what the tune Sandberg and Meyer will be playing in about 10 years…not that I expect any kind of feminist consciousness from M. Meyer, who strikes me as a Silicon Valley gen y robot. Sandberg has been around a couple blocks.

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  8. Erosion of trust, yes, but also lazy pedestrian management. As jen says, some kinds of work aren’t easily measurable, but “not easily” doesn’t mean “not possible to”. I’ve worked hard to develop ways to document my own productivity and my team’s and we’ve done pretty well. But it does require thinking in new ways and using new methods and…apparently the brilliant Ms. Mayer and her team aren’t up for that.
    The best prediction is that anyone at Yahoo who can find a better job will and Yahoo will be left with the least productive sitting at their desks.

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  9. Since the births of my two children, I’ve worked in as a researcher in a University and at a non-profit and working from home was and is very common in both settings. Few people work from home full-time but most work from home at least part of the time. I didn’t notice any impact on the option to work from home in either setting.
    I know a number of people that work at Best Buy and they are a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). That hasn’t changed even though Best Buy isn’t doing that well. I think the reason we don’t see more ROWEs is that it takes attentive management to make it work. You have to set goals for your employees and make sure they’re meeting them. That’s a lot more work than using face time as an indicator of productivity.

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  10. I completely agree that different types of jobs require different kinds of working arrangements. And yes, when I’m writing grants/papers I generally try to get out of the lab to avoid other people asking me about new tech/code. And yes, part of the reason I am in academia earning 50% of the salary I left 10 years ago is because of the flexibility I have. Talk to me after the sequester, but at this point I feel lucky to have a job at all.
    I’m just saying that different types of jobs require different levels of participation.

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  11. Working from home lets you work without interruptions, but in many work-places in which the work product isn’t a truly solo endeavor (education, writing), those interruptions are actually really important. I worked for nearly a dozen years at my last company, and towards the end of that time the interruptions (answering questions from support or sales about obscure features we’d built 8 years before, guiding my team-mates, discussing features with product managers) were a more significant contribution than the software I wrote personally.
    So there are some valid arguments against employees working from home, but so much hinges on what work-from-home means. The best arrangements are either minimal (employees can work from home with sick kids or plumber visits, but rarely do more than 2 days a month) or maximal (the entire team works from home at once, 1-5 days a week). In maximal arrangements, just as much communication happens as would happen on site — it just takes place via team chats or other online collaboration tools.
    The worst arrangements are ones in which on-site work is the norm, but a small minority are frequently/continually remote. In those situations, there’s little incentive for the on-site workers to fight with Adobe Connect or Campfire or whatever teleconferencing tools will allow the remote members to be involved in the work — an involvement that will still be hindered by the asymmetries of not being in the room. The easiest option is for everyone else to assign the remote member something unimportant to the team’s success and then ignore them. (I should point out that in these cases, the manager is rarely remote.)
    I’ve seen the suspicion of workers you describe convert successful maximal arrangements into broken fixed arrangements. In one company, the entire team worked remotely on M/W, and everyone participated (bosses included!) in the team chat. However, at one point an upper-level manager complained about the entire office being empty on those days. To react to that perception (while still maintaining a committment to WFH), the schedule was reorganized so that each person could work from home 2 days a week, but the office would always have 60% of the team on-site. This was an obviously terrible idea, but fortunately the damage was limited by the norms set during the maximal phase.
    Warning signs your WFH arrangement may lead to unemployment:

    Meetings happen without you knowing about them in advance.
    A ‘team chat’ (or other collaboration tool) for remote workers is unused.
    Such a tool is used, but only by remote workers.

    Such a tool is used, but your boss is never on it.
    You get an email from a coworker that starts with ‘X was looking for you, but I helped them…’
    Your WFH days are double the median employees.

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  12. I think part of the perception that “work at home” works in academia is part and parcel of the adjunctification of the workforce. That is, a growing group of people aren’t employees, but freelancers, and the work has been reorganized to make that arrangement work. Add in the frequency with which the stars travel, and you end up with a workplace that’s staffed in a way that encourages everyone to ignore the bricks and mortar location, sometimes even when they are supposed to be there (i.e. thesis defenses).
    In science labs, where some people have to work in person (though more and more of that work can be done remotely now, too), you can end up with situations where only the tech, who has to handle the labware is actually in the lab. Then you get drift (i.e. someone changes the soap, without anyone noticing), all your reactions fail, and you spend the next year trying to figure out why.
    Yes, some of the issues can be fixed with good management. But, what lab is managed by a good manager? (answer, pretty much none of them). Could that be fixed by getting better lab managers? Well, then, we’re asking, is a lab better managed by a great manager or by a great scientist? The answer might be the former, but that’s certainly not the culture, and it would be a tough sell for me.
    I would suspect the same “bad manager” problem would exist for small yahoo teams.

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  13. I think I see the issue of “working in view” v “working out of view” as a question of deliverables. If you have a clear product, and you deliver it, it might not matter if you “show your work.” If on the other hand, you don’t deliver it, or no one is exactly sure what you are supposed to deliver, then showing your work becomes important to the evaluation of your value to the company.
    (In my mind, an analogy to “show your work” on homework. If you’re doing math, and you get the right answer, then it might not matter whether you show your work. But, if you get the wrong answer? or if the work your doing doesn’t have a right answer (i.e. work for 50 hours and produce a report — when you see the report, is it clear to everyone that it is a 50 hour report? or are people unsure?)

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  14. “Well, that and if I work from home I’m compelled to clean/do laundry/sort through baby clothes, which just distracts me.”
    Yeah, no. When you’re working from home, that stuff waits until work is done.

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  15. “When you’re working from home, that stuff waits until work is done.”
    Whose work is ever “done”? Not Mayer’s for sure.

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  16. Speaking of distractions and work, I’d so not get anything done if I had an actual cubicle instead of an office with a door. I’d probably have looked for another job if I didn’t get an office, especially now that I have so many people who want to ask me questions.

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  17. You can not effectively work at home if you have small children in the house and no other child care arrangements. Period. That’s just not what work at home is for. It’s great to accommodate the occasional sick child, or child transport issues, and to reduce (eliminate) commute time. Even today, when the 15 yo has a snow day from school and I am working at home, although he doesn’t need me as a hands-on parent I find him a huge distraction from the things I need to be doing.
    Shouldl Yahoo, or any company that wants to attract good employees, allow telecommuting? Certainly. But should employees see working at home as a way to combine working with child care? Not at all.

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  18. You can not effectively work at home if you have small children in the house and no other child care arrangements. Period.
    I must disagree with this statement. It could just as easily be said that you cannot get work done at work if you have co-workers. It all depends on the work. If your job involves manning an e-mail box and responding to inquiries as they come in, I could easily see it being consistent with having a child around. If your job involves pushing packages of pdf forms, I could see it. For other jobs, it may not be as simple. But the categorical statement is not correct.

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  19. Nope. Worked from home when my kids were little and you cannot talk to coworkers on the phone with a screaming child in the background (or the foreground). Nor can you talk to clients or students, etc. etc. etc.
    Even if you work from home, you still need good childcare.
    What Mayer is not acknowledging, however, is that the same job looks like a lot less money once you factor in commuting costs, having to actually own professional clothes, having your car insurance go up because you are driving more, and occasionaly paying a late fee at daycare. And commuting time usualy leads to paying more for groceries, household repairs, etc because you have less time so you end up doing that time equals money equation. (also, when I work from home I MAKE dinner — when I work at an office, I’m more likely to have to purchase dinner, etc.) We have a dog because I can work from home. If I had to do facetime 9-5 at an office, we would probably have to give him away.

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  20. What Mayer is trying to do is to make Yahoo survive. She has to think about that company. She can think about being an industrial statesman, or a role model, or some other shit, when her company is working. And Yahoo is sliding down into the toilet.
    My nephew works for Apple. 50-60 hours a week, enthusiasm, they are going to take over the world. Those guys can work at home, and they will still have nose to grindstone. He gets on a bus in Berkeley and they are working til they get to the campus. He wakes up on the weekend and has an idea for Apple. Sure, you can let him work at home, and he will do his best. He hasn’t been reading the press about how his firm is dead man walking.
    You want to run Yahoo, you have to get everybody in a drum circle, and have them talk to each other, and DAMNIT WE ARE GOING TO BEAT THOSE GUYS.
    So despite the idea that we would all rather work at Apple or Google or someplace where they think they are world beaters, if you are at Yahoo and trying to survive, this may make sense.

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  21. “She can think about being an industrial statesman, or a role model, or some other shit, when her company is working.”
    The floggings will continue until morale improves. Good luck with that.

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  22. The question at hand isn’t whether or not workers can do a job full time from home, while watching kids. It is whether or not a worker can work a day or two from home. That is doable. I have friends who do it all the time. Is it easy? No. They work odd hours and have piecemeal childcare. It is entirely doable if the kids are in school for most of that time. It cuts out a two hour commute (which is very normal in this area of the country.) It is entirely doable, if it just meant as an emergency measure when a kid is sick.
    Kids get sick. In an age when so many parents both work, companies have to make allowances for that.

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  23. When I was a grad student in North Carolina, I worked 3 days a week babysitting for 2 kids under 5. Their father was a prof in the sciences (in the lab) and their mom was a part-time lawyer for Liberty Mutual in Boston. This was back in ’91 (I remember being transfixed by the Anita Hill testimony sitting in her living room). The 4 year old was hearing impaired (so I like to say I used to be able to sign as well as a 4 year old; I can still say “you’re a nut!” in sign language; no, MH, it doesn’t involve the middle finger ;).

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  24. You want to run Yahoo, you have to get everybody in a drum circle, and have them talk to each other, and DAMNIT WE ARE GOING TO BEAT THOSE GUYS.
    I guess I’m not seeing how making people work from the office achieves this camaraderie.

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  25. ” guess I’m not seeing how making people work from the office achieves this camaraderie. ”
    It doesn’t. But, it does seem a per-requisite, given that humans are social animals who interact in person. I also think a company that’s perceived as being on its last legs results in an environment that people don’t want to be in –as Dave says, it’s exciting to be on a winning team (like Apple, or whatever sports team is hot right now, or a failing restaurant). When things are bad, people want to stay away and are more likely to want to disengage. I bet Yahoo is suffering from that workplace dynamic, too, that people who don’t *want* to work at home feel like they’re workplace is a failing restaurant, and would rather not go in. More people around is a start towards creating the “party.”
    Making them engage by heavy-handed mandates might not produce the positive results, but disengaged people aren’t doing you any good, either.

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  26. “Kids get sick. In an age when so many parents both work, companies have to make allowances for that.”
    Yes, 100%. Let’s get paid sick days like a real country. Working from home is a hack solution to this scenario, even for professions/working environments where it can work well.

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  27. It really depends upon the work you are doing. A lot of tech design work is done in teams in conference rooms with white boards for hours at a time. You can’t dial in and follow along and contribute much in these cases. It’s different if you have work that you can do by yourself for long stretches.
    As for cubicles, we don’t even have them anymore – just desks with little portable file cabinets between them. Offices – what are those? This results in people working from home when sick – no one wants to catch your germs as you are sitting 5 feet apart.

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  28. If I have to work when I’m sick, the people I work with had better need me badly enough that they are willing to risk illness or I’m not getting out of bed.

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  29. “As for cubicles, we don’t even have them anymore – just desks with little portable file cabinets between them. Offices – what are those? This results in people working from home when sick – no one wants to catch your germs as you are sitting 5 feet apart.”
    Sneeze guards?

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  30. I don’t understand how you could work like that when everyone can see what you are reading on the internet.

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  31. Mayer’s primary goal is innovation, not productivity per se. Her anti-telework policy is actually a more extreme “ditto” of a Google company policy that discourages telework.
    This anti-telework trend is domain-specific to tech companies, and it will be a damn shame if it catches on elsewhere. Research shows that telework is often worse for innovation, but better for productivity at fixed jobs. If Yahoo really wants innovation, then arguably it should prohibit telework, at least for the employees it wants to be innovative. But many other organizations will continue to benefit from telework.

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  32. I agree with hush’s characterization, that Mayer’s decision should judged in the context of Yahoo’s goals and not taken as a sign for other companies, and that there are fits where telecommuting works and where it doesn’t.
    Also, I don’t see Mayer as at all hypocritical in taking perks for herself that aren’t available to everyone (as long as she doesn’t tell everyone else that they should manage family & work just as she does). Mayer is CEO of a company that’s betting the company on her. Most of us are not in that position. Her needs and resources are different from others. It’s no more hypocritical for her to hire two nannies & build a nursery than it is for secret service agents to guard Obama’s children while opposing armed guards in my kids’ elementary school.

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  33. This anti-telework trend is domain-specific to tech companies
    It’s certainly the latest silly fad. I’ve seen established companies abolish offices and cubes in favor of bull-room style set-ups in the attempt to emulate Facebook. Unless it’s accompanied by free lunches and rising stock prices, it does not go over well with employees.
    At least it beats the outsourcing fad.

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  34. If I ran the world (or a company) – *everyone* would work 3-4 days in the office and 1-2 days at home. I think there are huge benefits to those impromptu meetings by the water cooler…and also huge benefits to solitary writing/thinking time at home. Why not take advantage of both?
    I’m really lucky – I work for a company that allows me to work in a manager position on a 75% schedule, with one day/week at home. I’ve been with that company for 16 years. My anecdotal observation is that trusting employees and offering flexibility to the high performers will result in unusually high retention/loyalty.
    Yahoo’s mileage may vary.

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  35. SF Chron says:
    “…Likewise, we’re hearing from people close to Yahoo executives and employees that she made the right decision banning work from home.
    “The employees at Yahoo are thrilled,” says one source close to the company.
    “There isn’t massive uprising. The truth is, they’ve all been pissed off that people haven’t been working.””
    http://www.sfgate.com/technology/businessinsider/article/How-Marissa-Mayer-Figured-Out-Work-At-Home-Yahoos-4322836.php

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