5 Work-from-Home Myths (Or, Why I Applaud Marissa Mayer)

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com

Imagine that you’re a CEO of a bloated company with an under-performing workforce. You’re faced with achieving high growth, better earnings and killer product in a very short time. Your competitors have eclipsed you in innovation. Since you’ve come from their ranks, you know that the secret sauce is shared commitment, innovation, and the ability to stay out front and ahead of the pack, no matter what it takes. Most CEOs turning around a business would likely evaluate the stay-at-home work force under this lens as a very likely group to target for increased productivity and cost savings, which is why I find it so rankling that Marissa Mayer’s leaked initiative to outlaw working from home has sparked so much work-life balance controversy. I also find it ironic that much of the conversation is between journalists and writers, most of whom likely work at home, rather than CEO’s who are faced with the tough choices of cost, productivity and engagement.

I don’t usually come down on the side of arguing against the virtues of work-life balance but working from home pushes up against the themes of team-building, collaboration, sense of purpose and connection to work, all of which are known buffers to burn-out and presenteeism. (Full disclosure: I am a CEO, I do not work from home, I have worked from home in the past.)

Offices are Crucibles of High Stress and Low Productivity. This sounds true, but isn’t necessarily so. The implication here is that working from home is less stressful—but why? Because the standards are more relaxed? Because you don’t have the time crunch of getting out the door and through traffic? In fact, one of the most stressful experiences is to work in isolation and to feel you have no support. While the stress may seem higher in an office (and that’s debatable), the support, camaraderie, and relationships formed in a team work environment go a long way to combat stress levels and boost resilience.

And as far as productivity goes, it depends on how you define productivity. By some reports, yes, employees who work at home are interrupted less, and thus have more time to devote to focused work—and yet, with greatly reduced exposure and interaction with colleagues and ideas, they’re also far less likely to innovate and share information—critical to keeping ahead of the competition.

Without a Work-From-Home Option, You Won’t Attract Top Talent. This suggests that the most talented workers will take different jobs. Is that because Yahoo’s competitors offer work from home situations to talented workers? Not true. There are plenty of ways to attract and maintain talented employees: competitive compensation, recognition, growth, support, a rewarding and valuable experience. If your corporate culture is so lacking that the only benefit is being able to opt out, you have bigger problems to address. The best people will be those who want to show up. And if you lose people because they don’t want to come in, maybe they didn’t want to be there in the first place. By the way, I wonder how many of these people got promoted in the past year.

Work-From -Home Cuts Costs. This is a pennywise pound foolish idea–because what you save on office space will cost you in innovation (see #3). Get overly focused on what you save on coffee and square footage and you forget how valuable an investment you’re making in creativity and real-time execution.

Work-From-Home Reduces Your Carbon Footprint. Granted, more cars on the road=more pollution. But realize that even Yahoo didn’t introduce work-from-home with the intention to cut greenhouse gases. Again, innovation and flexibility could help ease concerns in this regard. Perhaps you introduce staggered hours to avoid rush-hour commutes or carpools.

Work-From-Home Promotes Work-Family Balance (or if You Don’t Support This, You Don’t Support Working Women). There is a corollary theme in this one, undoubtedly made more frothy by Mayer’s gender and the coincident publication of Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg: If you want to get ahead you have to step on other women.

As a woman I understand why other women who carry the burden of the family want to be home and have shorter working hours. But saying I get it, doesn’t mean I can allow it. The success of the business comes first; the CEO has the responsibility of experimenting and executing to try to improve the success of the business. In their recent WSJ piece (“Office Stress: His vs. Hers”), Lauren Weber and Sue Shellenbarger cite research from the American Psychological Association to conclude “Women are more likely to feel tense during a typical workday, reporting more often that their employer doesn’t appreciate what they do.” I’d suggest the fastest way for us to get more women into senior positions is to create business culture built on better recognition and growth opportunities.

While blanket policies can’t be a perfect solve, I support Mayer’s action for three reasons:

1. She’s looking to create an environment for innovation
2. She’s putting effectiveness ahead of efficiency
3. She’s lowering her overhead

This signals to me that Ms. Mayer understands that her workforce is a large asset and also a liability. She’s gambling that one policy will separate the wheat from the chaff, and create more friction and stress, but also more connection, commitment and in turn innovation. And finally, it’s great that a woman has made this move—it shows how  effective women can be in the tops ranks of business. Mayer made a good strategic move from perspective of turn around, now let’s see the innovation.