Abby Diaz
May 04, 2013 9:00 am

In February, Yahoo! announced that it was terminating flexible work arrangements. The telecommunications company decided that its workers would not be allowed to telecommute. As the once-floundering company tries to right its ship, it has concluded that improvement in its bottom line depends upon its workers “physically being together.” The new policy is so all-encompassing that the memo outlining it warned workers against even staying home to wait for “the cable guy.”

This type of prohibition would create waves at any technology company in the 21st century. The near-universal trend is towards more flexibility, not less. This is especially true in industries that bill themselves as cutting-edge, not to mention industries whose very business model is to put the world at a person’s fingertips.

Yahoo!, though, is not just any technology company. It is a technology company whose CEO happens to be (a) the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company; and (b) a woman. As if to add another exclamation point after her company’s name, Marissa Mayer assumed her leadership role when she was several months pregnant with her first child.

While flexible work schedules affect men and women, parents and non-parents, it is hard to dispute that there is a unique value to working mothers who have the ability to modify their work-day when gaps in childcare arise. Perhaps that exposes my own bias, as I am a working mother. I can unequivocally state that I would not be able to both lawyer and parent without some allowances from my employers. If I have a personal connection to this issue, though, I think it only allows me to appreciate how critical it is for employers to come around to the mindset that sometimes, it does not matter where the work gets done, so long as it gets done.

For some, that Mayer is a woman, and a working mother to boot, added a layer of intrigue to her decision to suspend work-from-home opportunities. Either way, Yahoo!’s turn  from modernity demonstrated a surprising lack of sensitivity and a misdirected prioritization. Mayer should not be condemned as a turncoat to the feminist movement, but she should be questioned as a leader for failing to recognize the repercussions of her decision. What’s worse, though, is that Mayer has the authority and the pay grade to create work-arounds that insulate her from those same repercussions; not only can Mayer afford the best childcare around, she built a nursery for her son next door to her Yahoo! office. She managed to demonstrate a stunning level of hypocrisy and tone deafness in just a matter of months.

It appears Mayer is now attempting some form of damage control. Yahoo! has now announced yet another employee policy, this time padding paid-leave benefits for new parents. Mothers who give birth can now enjoy 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, and mothers who have children via adoption, foster placement, or surrogacy can enjoy eight weeks of paid leave. New fathers will now receive eight weeks of paid leave in all circumstances. New parents will also receive a $500 check from Yahoo! to spend on things like house-cleaning, babysitters, or Yahoo! gear. The change represents a significant benefits expansion, especially for mothers, who used to receive only eight weeks of paid leave.

All of this is well and good. The old Yahoo! leave policy was too stingy, even when compared to the already-stingy standards predominant in the U.S. Again speaking from experience, it is very hard to remain committed to an employer who makes very little effort to recognize and “accommodate” the life you lead outside of your office park. By making the parenting-back-to-work transition a bit smoother, Yahoo! will presumably succeed in retaining talent and experience that would otherwise throw up its hands and opt to stay home or work somewhere else. And, of course, the move was a savvy public relations play in light of the damage done in February.

It important that companies like Yahoo! institute these kinds of benefits for reasons beyond Yahoo!, whose workers are already far more fortunate than many employees inside and outside of this country. The big, publicly-traded, globally-recognizable institutions need to set standards in these areas so that smaller companies are inspired to follow suit. Some parents have no flexibility in their schedules and virtually no paid-leave benefits, whatever the circumstance. That is obviously unfair and unacceptable. The U.S. has not updated the Family and Medical Leave Act in decades, so if movement is going to happen here, it looks like it will have to happen through the normalization of new employment practices at the corporate level.

It is still too early to celebrate, though. Yahoo!’s work-life policies include that eyesore of a ban on telecommuting, and otherwise lag far behind the gold mines at Google and Facebook. Those Silicon Valley neighbors have more generous paid-leave policies and numerous other perks. I will again reference my former law firm, which for years has given 16 weeks of paid leave for all new mothers – even non-partners. So Yahoo! has just caught up with the otherwise stereotypical New York City law firm I billed thousands of hours at (sometimes from my desk at home while my daughter napped).

Mayer seems to have simply made a strategic move to help restore her company’s public image. She does not deserve recognition, on this score, for much more than that. Yahoo! will continue to represent a step backwards in the evolution of corporate America because of its dim view of flexible work arrangements. It is unfortunate that a woman is responsible for the re-entrenchment of an old-fashioned approach, but it’s largely irrelevant. The policy is bad, period, and it still needs to be fixed. Period.

Featured image via CNN Money.

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