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The Yahoo! telecommuting ban story may be more nuanced than we know.

Betsy Myers

Marissa Mayer Is Wrong.” “Horrible Bosses: Marissa Mayer’s Ban on Telecommuting at Yahoo Won’t Work.” “Marissa Mayer’s Work-From-Home Ban Is the Exact Opposite of What CEOs Should Be Doing.” These headlines reflect popular responses in the blogosphere to the Yahoo CEO’s decision to end work-from-home arrangements companywide.

I can understand what’s behind these opinions. Mayer’s announcement of Yahoo’s new telecommuting ban comes when many companies are moving in the opposite direction, for two reasons. First, multiple studies have validated the fact that home-based workers are more productive than office workers under most circumstances. Second, studies have also shown that it’s more profitable for companies to increase retention of women and move them into senior roles. Though workplace flexibility is not exclusively a women’s issue, these facts have led many employers to increase work-from-home options, not decrease them. According to the Families and Work Institute, 63 percent of employers allow telecommuting, almost double the percentage from 2005.

That said, I’m not sure we can judge Mayer so harshly at the front end of her decision. There may be more to this story than meets the eye. She was brought in to try to help a company in need of a turnaround. She’s a star in the industry, recruited for her track record. Can’t we trust that maybe she’s making the decision for reasons we don’t know? As the CEO who has come in and done an analysis of her company, she’s made the decision that at this time, there is a specific need for face-to-face interaction and collaboration on a daily basis for the future success of her company. I would give her the ability to do what she thinks she needs to do without judgment.

I say this even while knowing that Mayer’s decision runs counter to what we’ve learned from our work at Bentley’s Center for Women and Business — that companies that are trying to retain, support, and promote women focus on creating flexibility programs and opportunities to work from home, not on cutting them. Yet we’ve also learned that the same strategies don’t work for every company or every industry at every point in time. The center is all about helping organizations go from conversation to action, and showing possible action steps. One of them is creating a flexible workplace. But you also have to give companies the ability to make the decision about what works for what they’re trying to accomplish, what the culture needs, and what they need to do to create a turnaround. And then we as workers need to say, is that the culture that works for my life?

Having worked as a senior advisor to President Clinton and as COO on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, I can tell you that there weren’t many opportunities to work from home. That’s why I have chosen a different career path today that allows me more flexibility to accommodate my family’s needs.

While Mayer’s decision doesn’t match what we advocate at the center, I think it is more interesting than wrong. It’s interesting and perhaps unexpected that a 37-year-old woman from a leading tech company would choose an option that goes against the grain of the current conversation about the benefits of increased flexibility and work-life integration — for both women and men — in corporate America. Yet we’re not in her shoes, and we don’t have all the facts about why she may have felt she needed to make this decision. What if in a year from now she turns Yahoo around? Will we say that she was wrong, or will we say maybe it’s not a place for people who need flexible schedules to work?

Though we can’t say with certainty what was behind Mayer’s decision or what its outcome will be, we can say that when it comes to leadership, optics are important. While company leaders should have the authority to make decisions based on their own analysis, they must be conscious of the visual image they convey. Leaders should be willing to walk the talk and make the same sacrifices they ask of their team. Be aware of the messages you send by your own actions. Remember: everyone is watching.

The public backlash over this decision is partly due to the seemingly unfair situation. While she is bringing her own child to work to a personal nursery, her employees don’t have the same onsite support for their childcare needs. It doesn’t help that employees are aware that her salary of $117 million over five years allows her to arrange any type of work-life support imaginable, while many employees will no doubt struggle to figure out how to manage their family commitments with the loss of their previous company-supported flexible work arrangements. I don’t fault Mayer for what she is doing, but I do think she should consider how she’s doing it, and the effect that these inconsistencies may have on her workforce.

Personally, I’m curious to see how Mayer’s decision will play out. She may be right, or she may be wrong. She may find, as many have speculated, that the move is a disaster that hurts morale, retention, and Yahoo’s bottom line. Or she may find that enforcing onsite collaboration and face time gives her company the boost it needs. It will be interesting to see what happens next at Yahoo, no matter which way it goes.

Betsy Myers is founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.