Was Marissa Mayer right to end home-working?

24 April 2013 | 1 Comment

This post was updated 31/1/14 to reflect new research into smartphone use outside office hours.

Marissa Mayer has been highly criticised for her decision to disallow Yahoo! employees to work from home. Guardian journalist Emma Keller called Mayer’s memo to her people ‘offensive,’ Richard Branson was ‘perplexed’ and I’d be surprised if countless more critical comments weren’t posted on Mumsnet and the like. I myself quipped on Twitter that it seemed odd.

Reading around Yahoo’s business situation I understand why she did it. One contributing factor was the 500 or so exclusively remote-working employees who are reported to be largely disengaged. The management information on Yahoo! home workers’ use of their virtual private networks shows they were either literally or metaphorically taking a lot of pi*s. It’s a shame the few have spoiled things for the many, or is it?

Infographic - Marissa Mayer_alternative to home-working




Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2009[i] finds that not all flexible-working is equal. Specifically, their survey of 5198 employees found that working from home is associated with greater levels of both work pressure and work-life conflict (whereas part-time work and flexi-time are not – and for more on the benefits of flexible working see the references on our blog post are you penalising part-time employees?). The authors suggest this is probably due to blurred boundaries.

If working from home is off the agenda, what practical approaches would be useful in helping parents – and indeed all employees – make a valuable professional contribution whilst maintaining a healthy personal life?

3 powerful ways:

  • Make use of flexi-time. The ESRI’s research findings show that employees who have flexible hours exhibit lower levels of work-pressure and life conflict. Moving to a culture of core office hours (for example 10am-3.30pm) with employees expected to be in during those hours and free to arrange their schedules flexibly out with, would alleviate much of the anxiety parents feel when leaving ‘early’ and arriving ‘late’ (as they wonder what assessment their co-workers are making about them). A core-hours culture levels the playing field and allows parents to deliver without being seen as less committed simply because they are constrained by childcare opening hours. (Perceptions of commitment are important as this blog [ii] post reveals). A core-hours culture also makes it possible for people to get away rom their desks to partake in pre-work exercise or after work learning and other extra-curricular pursuits that are likely to boost the overall performance and wellbeing of staff.
  • Expect staff to leave ‘on time’ at least once a week to make time for something other than work. Creating a company-wide norm of all employees switching off and shipping out at 5pm one day a week could be brilliant for business and staff. Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow writes in her book Sleeping with your smartphone: How to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work[iii] about how staff turnover went down, perceptions of delivering better value to clients went up and both team dynamics and individual life balance improved when consultants at Boston Consulting Group did this.
  • Respectfully ask employees to unplug from technology between 10pm and 6am, at least. Human beings are social creatures – we seek to emulate those around us and fit in – so when a senior leader sends an e-mail late at night we’re likely to think ‘that’s what it takes to get on around here.’ Late night technology use interferes with sleep and a string of nights with just four or five hours sleep is the equivalent of being above the legal alcohol limit for driving. Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, explains how judgment and problem-solving are impaired through lack of sleep and implores organizations to ensure all employees have 11 hours of continuous ‘rest’ every 24 hours. Research by Professor Russell Johnson published in Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes in 2014 found that people who monitor their smartphones for business purposes after 9pm are more tired and less focussed on their job the next day. In one of the studies, researchers asked 82 senior managers to complete daily surveys for a fortnight. A second study surveyed 161 employees daily in a variety of occupations – including accountants, dentists and nurses. In both studies the surveys showed that night-time smartphone usage for work reasons reduced sleep and left workers with less energy the next day. The ‘blue light’ emitted by smartphones is known to hinder melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleep.

I doubt Mayer’s decision to end home working was shaped primarily by concerns for employee wellbeing (except maybe their bladders), yet had she mentioned the ESRI’s research in her memo, both she and the decision, may have been viewed more positively. Some organizations are making home-working work and I know several who have committed budget to equipping their people in the skills of successful home-working.

Incidentally, in the ESRI’s study mean working hours for those involved in working from home were 41.5 compared to 37.2 hours among those who were not. Given any pressure to be ‘seen to be working’ is reduced when working at home, we suggest these 41.5 hours may be better quality hours as staff are more able to take a break and refresh themselves as they see fit. A second interesting finding from this study is that home-working was the only one of four types of flexible working used more by men than women.

And finally, if getting more women into top positions is genuinely important to your organisation, it will pay you to help families better balance their professional and personal lives, by encouraging male employees to get home and pitch in with domesticity too. US researchers[iv] have found that partners’ perceptions of how much work is getting in the way of family life affects whether employees are likely to be engaged in a job search. The higher the conflict, the more likely they are to be looking to leave and that’s even after controlling for the employee’s own perceptions. So in families where mothers and fathers are both contributing equally at home, there’s likely to be less marital conflict (studies of German and US couples show the risk of divorce reduces by about 50% when both partners do about half the earning and the housework each) [v] and more likely to be two harmonious careers.

This blog post was written by Jessica Chivers, author, Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011).

[i] Russell, H., O’connell, J.O. and McGinnity, F. (2009). The impact of flexible working arrangements on work-life confliect ad work pressure in Ireland. Gender, Work and Organization, 16, 73-97.

[iii] Perlow, L. (2012). Sleeping with your smartphone: How to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work. Harvard Business Review Press.

[iv] Baskerville Watkins, M., Ren, R., Boswell, W., Umphress, E., Triana, M., & Zardkoohi, A. (2012). Your work is interfering with our life! The influence of a significant other on employee job search activity Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 85 (3), 531-538

[v] Price Cook, L. (2006). ‘Doing’ gengder in context: household bargainingand risk of divorcein Germany and the United States. America Journal of Sociology, 112 (2), 442-72.




One Response to Was Marissa Mayer right to end home-working?

  1. Pingback: The Thinking Woman's Coach - Rocket Women/Talent Keepers | Jessica Chivers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *