Saturday, March 9, 2013

Marissa Mayer, What Were You Thinking?

Yahoo employees, I feel your pain, especially if you are parents.  Instead of telecommuting you will now have to put in forty hours of desk-time at the office every week.  Your new boss thinks that this will make you more productive.  I think she's wrong.

In the days before personal computers, college teaching--which is what I did for most of my career--was practically the only profession that offered flexibility in where and when one worked.  Sure, you had to show up for classes and for boring committee meetings.  You also had to have office hours during which students could come in to get help or complain about their grades.  In late May, sweltering in your robe, hood and mortarboard, you had to march to Pomp And Circumstance and sit through graduation speeches.  But you could pretty much set your own class schedule, and as for time spent preparing lectures and doing scholarly research, nobody cared whether you did this at home, in the library or in your office, during daylight hours or in the dark of night.

As a parent, this kind of flexibility saved my sanity.  Not that it was an easy life, by any means.  For years I taught classfuls of slumbering students at 8 a.m.  I scheduled my classes one right after another and ate lunch in my office while grading papers or preparing lectures so I could pick up my daughters at school on time.  (My husband had a long commute to work, so I was essentially a single parent during the day.)  Then, after dinner was done and the kids were in bed, I would work some more.

During Christmas, spring, and summer breaks we were supposed to put together new courses and do the writing and research that we didn't have time for during the semester. But nobody told me how many hours I had to spend on these activities.  Nobody looked over my shoulder.  And because of this I used to feel that my work was never done, that I was never doing quite enough.  I remember finding summers, when the kids were home and I felt that I should be producing reams of scholarship and inventing new course syllabi, quite stressful.  But I can't imagine what would have happened to our family if I had had to be in some office every day from nine to five.

All this changed during the last years of my career when I went to work for a grants-making agency in D.C.  There, for the first time in my life, I was subjected to a nine-to-five schedule.  By then, my daughters being grown, child care was no longer an issue.  But I remember feeling amazed at how little of that eight-hour day people spent actually working.  We were not bored federal workers marking time until retirement, but highly motivated former college faculty who  enjoyed our jobs.  I estimate that a solid four hours of work was the most that anybody got done in a normal workday.  The rest we spent on necessary personal business, creative gossip, speculation about the Congressional budget negotiations, and post-prandial torpor.

At least in my case, the college where I was practically my own boss got more out of me than the D.C. agency where I had to fill out time sheets.  I found the college job much more demanding, because the onus was on me to produce.  When I went to work in D.C. I felt for a change that I could leave my job behind the minute I left the office.  And I did.

So Marissa, if you're looking to squeeze more juice out of your people, I say give them more responsibility.  Treat them like grownups.  Treat them like professionals. The good ones won't let you down. 

You may have to make an effort to find creative ways to evaluate productivity and identify those who use telecommuting as a way to shirk work.   If you force these types to stay in the office from nine to five they'll find other ways to waste time--their own and other people's.  You wouldn't want them at Yahoo anyway.

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