08 Mar 2013

What’s Marissa Mayer to Do?


Marissa Mayer’s decision to ask Yahoo! employees to work from offices rather than at home has at least two potentially negative consequences, one for her and one for her employees. But she can mitigate both by linking personal and professional identity for herself and her workers.

First, Mayer should begin sharing a broader personal narrative with employees to stem the female stereotyping and backlash that followed her controversial announcement. Although some observers disagree with the in-the-office policy based on metrics for effectiveness and productivity, some of the negative reaction is based on expectations of how Mayer “should” relate as a female-CEO-with- children to offsite workers, who are largely assumed to be working mothers, too. The argument goes that either Mayer should support her “own kind” (i.e., other working mothers) or that she is not a “real” working mother because she is a wealthy CEO who has built her own nursery next to her office. Both these arguments judge her based on only two of the many categories to which she belongs.

One way Mayer can break down the stereotyping is to make clear that there’s a lot more to her life’s story than being a mom and CEO. She could tell us about unique elements of her upbringing or experiences that have made her who she is – the daughter of a Finnish-American artist and an engineer father, a Midwesterner, and an engineer herself. This basic personalization alone could help get others past their simplistic thinking about her. And if she can genuinely connect her broader personal narrative to her aspirations for making Yahoo! a cutting-edge company, that would be even better.

Second, Mayer should begin thinking about the organizational fallout from her decision. Some observers suggest that she may simply want many people who work from home to leave Yahoo! – a decision that tars all remote workers with the same brush. According to that way of thinking, Mayer has assumed that the personal lives and identities of her work-at-home employees are uniformly at odds with her corporate goals. Yet there is certainly some subset of remote workers who are talented and productive, along with a subset of on-site workers that are not talented and productive but see themselves solely as committed Yahoo! employees.

In today’s job market, some of the remote workers will comply with the new policy, but many of the productive ones in that group will now feel alienated from the organization. In addition, some remote workers who were attracted by the firm’s former flexibility and are also among the talented and productive may leave the company. Finally, the lack of policies to support employees’ personal lives in this new model, such as high-quality, on-site day care, also has consequences. Remote workers who may have been willing to trade flexibility for other forms of personal support are likely to leave or struggle. And a new set of potential employees who may have been willing to work on site but who don’t want to sacrifice their personal lives are not likely to come to the company. Together, these responses may mean that Yahoo! will be full of ex-remote workers that don’t want to be there. This will not help the productivity and collaboration problem Mayer says she’s facing in the ultra-competitive high tech industry.

My research suggests that people who feel conflicted about their identities (say, parent vs. Yahoo! employee) are probably going to be less open, less collaborative and less committed to the organization. To alleviate that tension, Mayer must refrain from stereotyping her remote workers as all bad and her on-site workers as all good. Rather, she has to figure out how to support the personal lives, aspirations and identities of all her high-performing employees.

For example, rather than create a blanket retraction of remote work, Mayer could investigate the resources, behaviors, and relationships at work and at home that enable some remote workers to be successful and try to promote and institutionalize them more widely. However, if she wants a new type of Yahoo! employee, one more inclined to physically being at work, she should provide greater support for high-performing employees’ demands at home rather than assume that being on-site means being productive. These won't help every person affected, but generating collective solutions would help employees understand that the issue isn’t being left to individual families but is seen as a problem the entire organization has to solve.

Right now it’s up to Mayer to show employees threatened by her new policy that belonging to "one Yahoo!" will not mean that they have to give up their non-work identities and become "only Yahoo!"

Lakshmi Ramarajan is an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School. Her research examines the management and consequences of identities in organizations.

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