Richard Reeves

The American Way of Work

LOS ANGELES -- I do have an office, at the University of Southern California, but except for actually teaching, I have been working at home for most of my life. Naturally, I'm interested in the controversy generated by Marissa Mayer, the new boss at Yahoo, when she ordered all that company's employees to report to a regular company office.

I am not surprised that many commentators and ordinary Americans are reacting to her with a lot of anger and few cheers. I think I know something about all this. I also think she did the right thing in her circumstances and moment. And I think she may have started an important national conversation about work in America.

They say she's a "workaholic." But so are most Americans. Personally, I think we are nuts, and our work craziness is escalated by all the wonders of new communications technology -- including the machines that make it possible, profitable and easier to stay home and produce more than we normally do.

Our workaholism is a mixed blessing at best. We have been driving ourselves by what has been called the Protestant ethic by some, as if production and guilt are what we were created for -- and, of course, there is Catholic and Jewish guilt, as well. "Stop and smell the flowers" is a cliche because it reflects the fact that we don't do much of it, unless we are farming or selling the flowers.

So we are almost all prime targets for what is being called "the top 1 percent," the folks who invent work, and more and more the 1 percent are the ones benefiting from our toil. The new technologies no doubt get more work from us 24/7, as we are paid less and less for old-fashioned eight-hour days. Many of us are like coal miners with GPS chips practically imbedded and cellphones, so the big ones can call anytime, anywhere to tell workers they should ramp up production.

In my family, a big one, we talk about these things a lot. One of my nephews, a Washington correspondent for a major media chain (newspapers and television stations), was criticized by his boss for being away from his computer for hours when he went to Capitol Hill to interview members of Congress. "Why don't you just e-mail them?" the boss wanted to know.

He quit.

Another nephew loves it. He spends three or four days a week working from home as a troubleshooter for one of the country's largest corporations. I reached him (by cellphone) as he was driving to a park to watch one of his children in a soccer game. He loves it, obviously, and is in kind of a perfect position for telecommuting, dealing electronically with people around the world.

He feels he is a great deal more productive and effective at home, 20 percent to 25 percent, beginning with the fact that he doesn't spend two hours most days driving to an office. And he misses many meetings, which, face it, are mostly a waste of time. He has an office, but usually spends only a day a week there.

"I think you can get a balance," he told me. "It depends on the job (and the person). Mayer is probably right about Yahoo."

I agree. There was a lot of evidence that Yahoo at-homers weren't producing all that much in that industry of innovation and creativity.

Ah, there's the rub. A lifetime convinces me that innovation and ideas are more readily a product of face-to-face working and hanging out. One thing leads to another, one idea to another -- then innovation and creativity.

I'm sure there are Yahoo at-home slackers, hitting the mute button when they are electronically part of a meeting at the office.

Mayer's summons may be just what her company needs. Maybe it isn't. But this dialogue she has opened is important as companies try to get more out of workers. The issues raised here are at least as important as issues raised and ignored in Washington.

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