Can Working From Home Work? Marissa Mayer Doesn’t Think So.

Professional women talk about standing on the shoulders of those who came before, or walking in the footsteps of powerful mentors. So, when a role model steps off the usual path, it rankles. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer probably didn’t anticipate that her ban on working from home would strike such a nerve. (And if you’re wondering if things would be different if the edict had come from a man….well, that’s an interesting question.)

But Mayer’s not only not a man, she’s the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of very few top-500 women CEOs, and one who happens to have given birth five months ago. So when the memo went out announcing the policy as being in the interest of  “collaboration and communication,” it launched a thousand water cooler conversations and countless blog posts. Couple that with Mayer’s recent claim that she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, and you have a recipe for a culture war.

But does the tempest over work/life balance really warrant all the outrage? From where I sit, the uproar is really more about class than gender politics, though there’s a little something for everyone here. (Working dads are offended at being left out of the brouhaha, as are childless workers and others.)

One reason for the backlash is that Mayer paid to have a nursery built next to her office so that she could be with her infant son, a perq that few working women enjoy. And the now-infamous work-at-home ban comes on the heels of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s  call-to-action for professional women to step up in the face of workplace challenges instead of stepping back.  The “leaning in” advocated by Sandberg has been belittled by some as a luxury afforded to a tiny club of uberprivileged women.

My own experience is that working at home can work, and like anything else, it has limits. But the controversy makes me wonder if flextime has been oversold or occasionally abused. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back because some businesses have gone too far in letting staff set their own hours, or they haven’t set the right goals or metrics.

So, what’s the secret to success for flexible worktime? I was pondering this in terms of my own experience when a sound bite from a WNYC radio commentary crystallized it for me. It was a conversation about the desirable qualities of a successful home-based staffer.

A sense of urgency.

There are many attributes that make up a superior professional, and most of them are the same for home-based workers. But this one is particularly important for staff who aren’t in the office every day.
Yahoo insiders say that this pressing sense of mission has been absent among many home-based workers at the company. I have no idea if that’s the case, but its importance rings true for me. It’s not the only quality, but as the owner of a professional service business, I’ve found that a healthy sense of urgency, coupled with a burning desire to do right for clients, is the X factor for most successful agency staff, whether they work at home, in the office, or anywhere in between.

Whether she likes it or not, Mayer’s every move is symbolic. And though some professional women feel betrayed by her move, let’s face it, we’re not walking in her Stuart Weitzmans. So, I say, go girl. Do what’s needed to turn the ship around, and the rest of us will cheer you on, then make our own decisions about what works for us.