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Marissa Mayer's Missed Managerial Opportunity

The Yahoo CEO should have seized the chance to shape the debate about telecommuting as a managerial issue.

April 26, 2013
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Corporate Culture, Telecommuting, Technology
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Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

While the topic of Yahoo's telecommuting ban is verging on becoming the proverbial dead horse, company CEO Marissa Mayer's appearance last week at the Great Place to Work conference extended its expiration date a little bit.

As CNN Money reported, Mayer defended her decision to ban telecommuting by saying it just isn't right for Yahoo at the moment and added "it was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative."

Mayer then went on to say "people are more productive when they're alone," and then added "but they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together."

Paul Rupert of Chevy Chase, Maryland-based consultancy Rupert and Co. called Mayer's reasoning "silly generalizations" that don't take into account "independent variables" such as the different work preferences held by individual employees or simply the office environment.

"I've been in situations where there were basically civil wars going on in the workplace," Rupert says in an interview. "There wasn't going to be any collaboration going on in that office no matter what. We're lucky there weren't any arms lying around the place."

But Rupert says Mayer's generalizations really aren't the point of the conversation. The point goes back to Mayer's comment about her decision being perceived as an industry narrative and her inability to control it. Rupert thinks Mayer should've skipped her flabby defense about collaboration and innovation and instead come at the topic from a management perspective.

"She's probably right," Rupert says referring to Mayer's decision to end Yahoo's telecommuting. "It was probably a poorly managed program. Any business technology can fail when it's poorly managed."

But Mayer failed to shape the conversation in that way. And by doing so "she represents the last gasp of the argument against telecommuting," Rupert says.

Ultimately, as Rupert pointed out in our phone conversation (which was productive and collaborative despite me being in Chicago and he being in D.C.), this issue isn't going away. I'm sure it'll only become more dominant as technology evolves. It won't be about whether to allow telecommuting, but how to allow telecommuting to happen.

People want "more rather than less control," says Rupert, who believes companies should offer "an environment that allows you to alter your schedule."

For example, maybe somebody feels like they could be more productive if they started their day at 11 a.m. and worked till 7 or 8 at night; or maybe somebody wants to work from home Mondays and Fridays to save a little bit of money and time by not having to commute; or maybe you've got an employee who does their best work in the middle of the night.

In any case, Rupert says an employer should be open to giving a worker who's asked for an unconventional schedule the chance to prove it would allow them to be more successful. If that's unable to happen, it becomes the manager's responsibility to rein in that employee or figure out a different schedule.

But until a company gives those employees a chance to work an unorthodox schedule, it may be missing out on those employees' most productive hours and best ideas.

Max Mihelich is Workforce's associate editor. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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