Marissa Mayer Just Wants One Thing: Efficiency

Hold on, everyone who presumes that by banning telecommuting, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is anti-feminist, taking aim at hardworking mothers not just at the tech company but around the globe. Take a deep breath, Salon, Cosmo, Technorati, and the Jane Dough’s Meredith Lepore, who complained on the heels of Yahoo!’s announcement Wednesday that “until everyone has a nursery in their office, leaving kids behind to head into Yahoo! every day might be hard for many less high profile employees.”

Mayer’s decision may not be popular among all of Yahoo!’s employees, nor pleasing to those who believe that flexible work environments are the key to female corporate success. But the Yahoo! board hired Marissa Mayer — the actual person, not a feminist exemplar — to run the company. And calling all hands on deck without exception is exactly the kind of thing Marissa Mayer, the person, who spent her formative professional years helping to build a little company called Google, would do. Mayer has historically deflected all attempts to make her a spokeswoman for anything — female geeks, working women, corporate CEOs. “No one wants to be a stereotype, right?” she said in an interview last year at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. “Everyone wants to know that they can achieve what they want, be who they are, being their authentic self.” In another interview for last night’s PBS documentary Makers, which tells the story of the fight for female rights, Mayer said she doesn’t call herself a feminist and thinks that “it’s become in many ways a more negative word.” And the statement that Yahoo! released in response to criticism over the new policy — “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home — this is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now” — basically asks us not to read too much into it.
Mayer’s authentic self, by all accounts, thrives in pressure-cooker, data-driven, meritocratic work environments. “What you really want to do is set up a system where people feel like they can contribute their ideas, and the best ideas rise to the top in a kind of Darwinistic way,” Mayer told an audience at Stanford University in 2006. She loves the excitement and adrenaline rush of an overwhelming challenge, she has said; she thrives on all-nighters and the stimulation of teams of supersmart people in one room working together to solve a problem. She may feel that folks who don’t prefer to work that way don’t belong at Yahoo!, a foundering company that needs to turn itself around — and fast.

“There are some people where, you walk into an environment and you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no way we can ever get everything done that we need to get done,’ they get completely overwhelmed. And there are other people who are like, ‘Wow, we’re never going to get done everything we need to get done, which means there’s so much that I could do.’” Mayer’s preference is obviously for the second group.

Mayer has little tolerance for slackers. People who work from home are not necessarily slackers, but the inverse is also true: Slackers can often be found at home. She also has a loathing of bureaucratic procedural conventions; she’s a famous stickler for efficiency. Thus, calling everyone to the office may be her way of streamlining decision-making: getting everyone who matters in the same place at the same time, not having to chase down a key player while she’s walking the dog. “As you get big,” she said last year, talking about Google, “there becomes this thing where you’re waiting for the weekly meeting to make a decision. One of the goals now is, never let a decision wait for a meeting … queuing up decisions ultimately slows you down.”

Over at Slate, Matthew Yglesias has suggested that with this move, Mayer is rooting out less-productive workers without announcing layoffs, and based on the evidence, I agree. But with a caveat. Mayer has said she’s not much of a fan of the word balance, and she obviously doesn’t think much of people who need eight hours of sleep a night and three squares a day. But she does believe in allowing employees to do the things that matter most to them, whether it’s keeping a regular dinner date with college friends or playing Ultimate Frisbee — or showing up on time for your kid’s soccer match. “Burnout happens because of resentment,” she has said. “That notion that, wow, I worked 100 hours last week, and I couldn’t even have this thing that I really wanted.” With her ban on telecommuting, Marissa Mayer is building a company where people play by Marissa Mayer’s rules. And once she’s got that A-Team in place, she’ll let the players go home. Once in a while.