Turns out you don’t even have to be a Yahoo employee to have a strong opinion about Yahoo’s new employee policy. CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement this week that staffers will now be expected to actually commute to an office — namely, the Yahoo office — rather than toil from home or a café or a bus station was met widely as a referendum on The Way We Work Now. Beginning in June, an entire multi-billion-dollar economy can no longer rely on a workforce in drawstring pants — the company’s future success is about staffers “physically being together.”
Perhaps no one took this news harder than Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post, who believes that Mayer, as a mother, should know better than to make employees choose between caring for their families and their jobs, and that “everyone is being warned that their lives don’t matter.” While Mayer may have had the means to go back to work two weeks after giving birth, as she did this past September, few of her thousands of charges can say the same. “Putting employees back into a box is not good for Yahoo,” Belkin writes. “It is not good for workers. And it is very bad business.”
Forget for a moment that Belkin is not, in fact, one of the workers she’s speaking for, or in any way directly affected by this decree. And forget that she may not have as much of a sense of Yahoo’s business challenges as the company’s actual CEO. What makes this screed so puzzling is its presumption that a full-time telecommuting employee could and would do full-time employee things while also successfully attending to the welfare of a small human being. No two jobs are the same and no two kids are the same, but if you’re trying to take care of both at the exact same time, there’s a very strong chance you’re doing at least one of those things poorly. This is just math: Two half-assed jobs do not equal one whole one.
I do not abide by the notion that having children gives anyone the right to tell others how to deal with their own. I happen to have two of them, but I don’t particularly care what you do with yours. (I was the same when I had a dog — headphones on in the park at all times; not interested in talking about our dogs, just trying to keep mine from shitting in my apartment.) As I’m typing this, there’s a better than average chance that my older kid is about to catapult himself onto the baby on the couch, as is his wont, and I’m not only doing a terrible job of preventing that, I’m writing a sentence that I’ll almost certainly have to redo later. But I’m trying to prove a point here.
What Belkin calls “a blending of life and work” cannot help but read as “a gig so easy, you can do other shit and still get paid!” Calling Mayer’s decision a regression to the culture of 40 years ago isn’t merely a gross generalization, it negates the possibility that modern workplaces — the good ones, anyway — are indeed often optimized to the needs of a particular company and its employees and are not cookie-cutter industrial-park cubicle farms. (And hey, aren’t we still making fun of tech offices for all having foosball tables and scooters? Pick a cliché and stick with it.)
This is not to insist that productivity hinges solely on physical presence in a common office space; there are many aspects of my own job, for example, that do not necessarily benefit from being in a large, open room full of other people. Those aspects often require the exact opposite of collaboration; they require that distraction be kept to a minimum. But these same responsibilities wouldn’t be achieved any more easily at home, talking to or listening to or not listening to a child, or on the way to pick up or drop off a child, or, really, doing anything having to do with a child. Kids are needy little bastards, even the good ones. And certainly many who work from home also pay for child care — in which case, what exactly are we angry about here? Once that meter is running, it doesn’t matter where you are, may as well go where the person paying your salary wants you to go. It’s kind of a tradition.
Belkin also presumes that all parents, by definition, would rather be around their kids all day, every day, than around their coworkers; certainly this is true for many. But it shouldn’t be a commentary on anyone’s devotion to their family to suggest that people might also place personal value on their careers and their colleagues. The cost of child care is such that a paycheck may barely even cover it — work is a necessity, but it also can be a privilege, and it stands to reason that many of the jobs at a company like Yahoo or the Huffington Post fit the latter description. In a perfect world, child care is affordable enough that this isn’t even a conversation.
We should probably be thankful that we’ve managed to get to a point in history when an employer telling employees that they should actually come to work is considered newsworthy, much less an outrage. And maybe Belkin is ultimately right about this decision being bad for business, but it’s hard to see how that’s a concern for anyone not directly involved in that business.
To take a new mother to task for a policy that supposedly fails to make Yahoo a “modern family-friendly workplace,” however, seems to gloss over a lot of realities about what such a workplace would look like. Anyone who thinks it looks like a family’s living room, come bring your laptop over to our place any morning. The baby’s colicky — hope you’ve got headphones.