Wednesday, February 27, 2013


I’ve been struggling with Marissa Mayer all week.  The CEO of Yahoo, who famously took a full two weeks of maternity leave and installed a nursery next to her office, pulled the plug on telecommuting for her employees.  Those defending the move are full of justifications: these were mostly underperforming and deadwood employees who needed this kind of shove to push them out the door; it’s important that everyone be together to work collaboratively; and Yahoo, Google and other high tech companies already provide free food and free gyms on their campus-like environments, so what’s the problem?
I’m reminded too, of the Atlantic Magazine piece by former State Department Policy Planning Director, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” She quit her dream job in Washington to return to Princeton, back into a tenured position, where she could be more of a mother to her two teenage sons. That article led to lots of hand wringing about work-life balance.

Neither woman speaks to me. Mayer is too draconian. I can almost buy in to her theories about needing to see colleagues face-to-face, but it's clear she has another agenda  when she won’t grant even one day a week for telecommuting. And Slaughter loses credibility when she drops name after name as illustrations of her points. Unfortunately Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Mary Maitalin and Michelle Flournoy don’t share the problems of most working mothers. Slaughter's solutions -- time your babies and freeze your eggs -- are too calculating by half, and while she focuses on the interesting shift between her generation and the next, she never questions underlying assumptions about how we organize our work.   
All my life I’ve railed against the inflexibility of the five day, 40 hour work week. I’ve fumed about it in traffic jams, plotted dentist appointments around it, and chafed at the insanity of trying to make the dynamic life of a family fit into this archaic and highly inconvenient framework.

I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard plenty of water cooler conversations over the years from colleagues who had child care problems, elder care problems, their own health problems, commuting problems, and other difficulties that made the imposition of a 40 hour work week feel like a prison sentence with weekend furloughs.
As a younger woman I was certain that we would conquer this problem in my lifetime. When technology revolutionized just about everything in the workplace, I thought that telecommuting would go from a trickle to a torrent. I saw more pregnant women in the workplace, and I thought job-sharing would soon be commonplace. I believed that more part time jobs would open up – quality part time jobs, not clerical ones. I imagined that the reward for the technological revolution that took place in my lifetime would be lives richer in leisure, education, and connectedness, and the rat race known as a woman’s lot would ease up. 

That none of this has happened leaves me baffled. The fact that many of us are working harder and longer than our mothers leaves me stunned. The boundaries between work and home have been erased, and not to the benefit of the home.
There is no enlightened benevolence, no ethos that gives higher value to humans than to technology. Instead, the tools we are given have become electronic leashes to keep us near at hand on evenings and weekends.  As a girl, I remember my father shouting to me and my brothers when the phone rang, “I’m not home.” He was outraged that anyone would intrude upon his evening. No such boundaries are permissible today. I wonder what he would think, watching me cook with a phone in one hand, a laptop open on the table, texting while setting the table. Multitasking seemed like the mark of a highly productive person at one point in my life. Now I see it as the mark of a misguided fool.

A vacation no longer means that you are really away. There is an expectation in many fields, that at a minimum you will still check your emails, and it would be nice if you joined meetings via phone or Skype. We bow to the principle of collaborative work so loved by Marissa Mayer and spend entire days meeting with various teams. That leaves only the wee hours for the lonely individual side of the equation, which is when and how the real work gets done.

Despite fuming over Mayer's edict, the rationale side of me cannot wholeheartedly condemn the idea that people who miss meetings miss everything. They miss the "kremlinology" of people dynamics. Who sat where? Who talked too long? Who rolled his eyes? Who left early and who gave off the silent but unmistakable vibe that the person at the head of the table is an idiot? I've navigated my careers by reading the tea leaves and excelling at meetings. I'm not sure I would be able to do this as a telecommuter.

And must creation always be the act of a loner? Don't those teams Marissa loves actually make the
magic through which new ideas come forth? Sometimes, certainly. There is undisputed value when highly intelligent people bounce ideas off each other. 
But the dicussions swirling around Mayer, Slaughter and others miss another point altogether. What is it we call work? What do people actually do for 40 hours? The lucky few who create for a living can indeed do their work anywhere -- in the shower, in the car, in their nightgown. But much of what we do at work has nothing to do with the act of creation. We file, sort, fill out forms, serve clients, and keep records.   
No wonder most of us still feel like wage slaves. The promise that tehnology would not only shorten work, but remove the drugery from it is still unfulfilled. And how appalling that these tools and technology have not made us any more intelligent when it comes to policies about working. What would it take for Yahoo to reinstate telecommuting? What would it take for industry to offer more part time jobs and opportunities for job sharing? Would it kill us all to work a little less, and maybe a little better? What would it take for all of us—including those like me who complain the loudest – to turn off our phones, shut our laptops and set work aside?   

Until we are more courageous we will continue to plod along, as dumb as beasts. 

1 comment:

  1. Before there were mills and factories, looms were at home and weaving was a cottage industry. Women worked in winter months knitting and making lace. Then the factory system and economies of scale changed all that. Just as the summer vacation for the high school student is a hold over from agricultural society, so is the vacation a holdover from industrial and post-industrial society. Now time is no longer pulsed but is an ongoing continuum and place is no longer a location but an access number. There should be a tax on economic transactions so that folks like Goldman Sachs can be recycled to support a Guaranteed Annual Incomee. Then office workers can quit to make guitars in Vermont and poets can live on the GAI to live simply and write. When life becomes a vocation and not a job-based identity, then we shall fish in the morning and criticize in the evening--as some Un-American subversive once said in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

    Uncle Bil