The end of telecommuting?

02/28/2013 9:54 AM

02/28/2013 11:18 AM

By Rebecca Novak Tibbitt

At CEO Marissa Mayer’s direction, Yahoo will be yanking work-at-home employee benefits by June. (See original article here.) In a move being decried as discriminatory toward women, working moms in particular, she sent a message loud and clear: “Get back to work you lazy slackers.”

As someone who has been a work-from-home freelancer for the past eight years, my antenna is up. Like many comments that I’ve read, I feel that I’m more productive at home, focused away from the water cooler gossip and chatty co-workers stopping by to fill me in on their weekend exploits.

Last night, after working a pretty full day (from home), getting dinner together, cleaning up and getting my three kids to bed, I turned on the TV with no particular plan. I settled on the PBS documentary “Makers: Women who Make America” about the history of the women’s rights movement. Since no one was there to ask me to change the channel, I sat and watched the whole thing.

Over the course of three hours, I felt a growing sense of unease. Shouldn’t I feel more grateful to the women who were on the front lines? Of course I thank them for shattering myths and stereotypes about a woman’s place. Shouldn’t I take up the mantle of fighting for equal pay, when 40 years after decisive victories for women’s rights, women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts earn? I was relieved when the daughter of the co-founder of Ms. Magazine admitted her ambivalence toward “the movement” in the face of trying to hold together a career and motherhood. I hear you, sister. Feeling bad about not doing more for women’s rights is pretty low on my guilt priority list.

As a freelancer, I get paid hourly for the work that I do. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. And that’s OK with me. In exchange for paid vacation, bonuses, and corporate retirement packages, I have the flexibility of taking my son to the Urgent Care, like I did this morning, and being there when my kids get home from school. Luckily, I’ve had no career repercussions from this flexible arrangement. I do not have a supervisor watching me clock in and clock out. I have my work to do and, if I want to get paid, I’ll do it. (And, since I have every intention of getting paid, I will, of course, do it).

Moves like Yahoo’s are an insult not just to women who work from home, but WORKERS who work from home. Today’s workforce ebbs and flows to keep a roof over their family’s head and dinner on the table. I read recently that the “Great Recession” will have repercussions on my generation for the rest of our lives in terms of reduced earning potential, reduced contributions to retirement accounts and increased debt. For some, like me, having the flexibility to take part in my kids’ activities was a cool silver lining. Banking time with our families now will, I hope, pay dividends over a lifetime.

Despite gloom and doom reports of poor parenting, I’ve seen just the opposite. Our family life has become our core, our focal point. Which is why snatching away a benefit that allows for the craziness of family life feels like the rug being pulled out from underneath us. I feel the sting for those workers. It’s taking your family time away, in exchange for a commute. No more soccer coach. No more Girl Scout leader.

The “Makers” documentary interviewed women who gave scathing criticism of the women’s lib movement, calling it a failure for making women believe that they could “have it all.” Maria Shriver said that her mother told her once that she could have it all, just not all at the same time. Ms. Shriver’s advocacy work with the poor, mostly working women, has led her to conclude that the phrase is meaningless to many women today. Most are just trying to make it through the day.

I won’t criticize the women who revolutionized our society’s culture. My husband did a mountain of laundry over the past few days without being nagged or even asked, simply because it needed to be done. His work in television production means that he works a lot of nights and weekends, freeing him up to parent, cook and clean as he sees fit. He cherishes story time at the library with our 3-year old. It’s their “thing.” A generation or two ago, this would have been strange, but is not so much anymore. Our kids know that Mom is Mom and Dad is Dad. They also know that unloading the dishwasher isn’t just “Mom’s job.”

I’ve yet to meet a mom – working or otherwise – who feels like she has any piece of the elusive “it,” much less all of it. I would imagine that many dads – working or otherwise – feel the same. Perks like flexible workplaces are making the shells game of today’s family life a little easier for some. With technology, flexibility, and a basic respect for employees, shouldn’t families be able to have at least some of “it,” some of the time?

Interestingly, Ms. Mayer of Yahoo was also interviewed on the “Makers” program as a “trailblazer.” That remains to be seen.

Rebecca Novak Tibbitt, MPH, is a Charlotte-based mother of three who writes the weekly "Fun Adventures" blog for the Charlotte Observer's MomsCharlotte site. She is also a communications consultant with more than 20 years of experience, a freelance writer who has been published in a number of health and medical publications, and is the leader of her daughter's Girl Scout troop.

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