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What Mayer misses on work-life balance

By David Weinberger, Special to CNN
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat March 2, 2013
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends the 2013 session of the World Economic Forum on January 25.
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attends the 2013 session of the World Economic Forum on January 25.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Weinberger: Mayer shows arrogance to require Yahoo workers to come in
  • If you've signed on for telecommuting, banning it is like a firing and rehiring, he says
  • Mayer signals Yahoo is desperate, he says, but it conveys disdain for workers
  • Weinberger: She seems unaware how important "place" is to an ordinary person's life

Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books).

(CNN) -- Much as I love the Internet — and I love it thiiiiiiiis much! — it is not a physical space.

And no factor so directly and causally affects us as our physical space.

The temperature in your room determines which drawers you'll open when you're choosing your clothes. The location of your stove determines where you'll cook. The distance to the front door determines the magnitude of the interruption when someone knocks. The fact that stores are away from our homes explains entire concepts like "errands." Half of what I find annoying in life is due to things not being near me when I want them. The space we're in is deeply determinative of the lives we lead.

David Weinberger
David Weinberger

So, when a CEO says that I can't work at home any more, it's very much like being fired from one job and hired for another without anyone asking if I agree to the deal.

CEO right: Yahoo workers must show up

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For me, this is ultimately the arrogance of Marissa Mayer's mandate that Yahoo employees can no longer work from home.

Which is a way of saying that I want to skip two other arguments.

The first is about whether letting people work from home is good or bad for a business. I think we all agree that physical proximity breeds an intimacy that online connections cannot, and it enables sustained creative development that online interactions inhibit.

Policy riles workers everywhere

Yahoo: Work in the office or quit
Was Marissa Mayer out of line?
Yahoo ends telecommuting

Except we don't all agree. For instance, I don't. I've worked at home for many years over the past couple of decades, and I don't believe I always work better in an office. After all, the main point of space is to keep things apart, whereas the Net only exists as a set of connections. And the Net as a social platform is getting so sophisticated that for many sorts of ideas at many stages of development, it makes the real world look like a big box of 404s. (Disclosure: I work in an office with hugely creative people and enjoy it.)

Slightly more scientifically: The research data on this topic are hard to generalize from. For example, studies that show that dispersed coding teams work more slowly may simply be an indication that these dispersed teams need better tools or management. And perhaps in particular circumstances a balanced approach — Together Tuesdays! — might work.

Why the interest in Yahoo CEO?

So, that's the first argument I don't want to have. At least not here.

Who works from home and how they do it

The second is about whether Marissa Mayer is a hypocritical, entitled, privileged, spoiled 1%'er because she gets to bring her infant to work with her. The content of her character is irrelevant to whether she's made a good decision. Even entitled 1%'ers are sometimes right. So let's not have that argument either.

Instead I want to ask what sort of decision Mayer has made.

Point No. 1 is where we began: A change in place is one of the most profound changes one can make. Imagine you are working at home and your company gives you the choice of either working 9 to 5 in the office or moving to another state where you will be allowed to telecommute. I personally would have considered moving. Perhaps you wouldn't. But the point is that those two choices are roughly equivalent for many of us. That's how big a deal it is to be told to show up for work every day. It's a big, big deal.

A work-at-home mom defends Yahoo's Mayer

Point No. 2 is that Mayer clearly has issued this edict to send a signal. Otherwise, she would have announced that Yahoo is going to re-evaluate the work-at-home folks on an individual basis. If your job passes the test, congrats, you can stay in your bathrobe. But requiring everyone to show up all the time is a signal expressed as a policy.

The problem is that if you send a signal by, say, firing off a flare, you're supposed to aim the flare well over the heads of the folks in the lifeboat. If you aim it at them and set some of them on fire, it's not a signal any more. It's an assault with a bright weapon.

Opinion: Allow Yahoo workers to work at home

So, while Mayer has successfully signaled that Yahoo is desperate, the signal contains other messages, as well. The first message is that she distrusts her employees, and distrusts the Net. The second is that she doesn't understand how important where one works is to an ordinary person's life — not just to the quality of one's life, but to the substance of it. This is odd since she herself has said that for her, family comes before Yahoo. Third, she has signaled that sending signals is her idea of substance.

Bad signals. Especially since to the recipients, they are not signals but wrenching changes in what is the most important element of our lives: our place.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Weinberger.

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