Last Thursday I got a chance to hear Sheryl Sandberg speak at an event put on by The Commonwealth Institute.  Overall I wasn’t surprised by much of the content since I’d already read the book (here’s my review of Lean In).  But at one point Sheryl made a comment that I hadn’t heard before.

The best way to reform the policies of organizations is to run them.

And of course the next question she was asked was about Marissa Mayer and her now infamous decision to end working from home at Yahoo.  It has to be hard for Sheryl Sandberg to answer this question over and over again.  She has said that she and Marissa are friends (former co-workers at Google) and that no one truly knows what’s going on inside of Yahoo.  She has also said that the flap over Marissa’s decision just points out the fact that women are questioned for this sort of thing and men aren’t.

It’s Sheryl’s choice to support Marissa, but I’m sure she wishes this topic hadn’t come up quite so close to her book tour because it’s a pretty tough case to make that Marissa Mayer’s policy is anything but a huge roadblock for working Moms and Dads.

I’ve been asked to speak in a few weeks and of all the topics I put on the table, the first choice was overwhelmingly “managing remote teams”.  A friend of mine is interviewing for a new position and is hoping the management is “not going to go all Marissa Mayer” and require her to work 100% from the office.  There’s a lot of concern that this very visible decision will have negative ripple effects throughout the working world.

We are so fortunate to have great tools that allow people around the globe to communicate and collaborate despite the challenges of geography, time differences or even language barriers.  Three years ago I wrote an article about managing remote teams and the only thing that’s changed is now I use an iPhone instead of a Blackberry.  Yahoo’s decision is flying in the face of overwhelming evidence indicating that allowing employees to work from home offers big benefits to both companies and employees.  A 2013 Stanford study of a single company showed increases in productivity, quality and employee satisfaction, coupled with a drop in costs to the employer.  A 2010 study by the Telework Research Network showed that the same positive outcomes across a large sample of employers.

The jury is still out on whether or not Yahoo will make it through this turnaround period and come back stronger, or whether they will got the way of Altavista and fade into internet history.  And even if they do succeed it will be hard to tell whether this particular policy helped or hurt that process.  But companies who see this dialogue and jump to the conclusion that the best choice is to bring everyone back to the office will be making a big mistake.

The bottom line?  Flexible work policies benefit employers and just because Yahoo says it isn’t so for them doesn’t make it true for everyone.  And Sheryl Sandberg is going to have to keep smiling and answering that hard question if she wants to suggest that policies will improve when more women are in charge.



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