Marissa Mayer's decision to ask Yahoo! employees to work from offices rather than at home has at least two potentially negative consequences, one for her and one for her employees. But she can mitigate both by linking personal and professional identity for herself and her workers.
First, Mayer should begin sharing a broader personal narrative with employees to stem the female stereotyping and backlash that followed her controversial announcement. Some of the negative reaction is based on expectations of how Mayer, as a female-CEO-with- children, should relate to offsite workers, who are largely assumed to be working mothers, too. The argument goes that either Mayer should support her "own kind" or that she is not a "real" working mother because she is a wealthy CEO who has built her own nursery next to her office. Both these arguments judge her based on only two of the many categories to which she belongs.
One way Mayer can break down the stereotyping is to make clear that there's a lot more to her life's story than being a mom and CEO. She could tell us about unique elements of her upbringing or experiences that have made her who she is—the daughter of a Finnish-American artist and an engineer father, a Midwesterner, and an accomplished engineer in her own right. This personalization alone could help get others past their simplistic thinking about her. And if she can genuinely connect her broader personal narrative to her aspirations for making Yahoo! a cutting-edge company again, that would be even better.
Second, Mayer should begin thinking about the organizational fallout from her decision. Some observers suggest that she may simply want many people who work from home to leave Yahoo!—a decision that tars all remote workers with the same brush. According to this way of thinking, Mayer has assumed that the personal lives and identities of her work-at-home employees are uniformly at odds with her corporate goals. Yet there is certainly some subset of remote workers who are talented and productive, along with a subset of on-site workers who are not talented and productive but see themselves solely as Yahoo! employees.
In today's tight job market, some of the remote workers will comply with Mayer's new policy, but many of the productive ones in that group, especially those attracted by the firm's former flexibility, will now feel alienated from the organization and may leave. The lack of policies to support employees' personal lives in this new model, such as high-quality on-site day care, also has negative consequences. Remote workers who may have been willing to trade flexibility for other forms of personal support are now likely to leave or stay and struggle with the new requirement. And prospective employees who may have been willing to work on site but don't want to sacrifice their personal lives are likely to look for a job elsewhere. Together, these responses may mean that Yahoo! will be full of ex-remote workers who don't want to be there. This will do nothing to remedy the productivity and collaboration problem Mayer says she's facing in the ultra-competitive high tech industry.
My research suggests that people who feel conflicted about their identities (parent vs. employee) are probably going to be less open and less collaborative with their colleagues and less committed to the organization. To alleviate that tension, Mayer must refrain from stereotyping her remote workers as all bad and her on-site workers as all good. Rather, she has to figure out how to support the personal lives, aspirations, and identities of all her high-performing employees.
Mayer could also investigate the resources, behaviors, and relationships that enable remote workers to be successful and try to promote and institutionalize them. However, if she wants a new type of Yahoo! employee, one more inclined to physically being at work, she should provide greater support for high-performing employees' demands at home rather than assume that simply being on-site in means being productive. These responses won't help every person affected, but generating collective solutions would help workers understand that these issues are organizational and not being left to individual families to work out on their own.
It's now up to Mayer to show employees threatened by her new policy that belonging to "one Yahoo!", as she put it, will not mean that they have to give up their non-work identities and become "only Yahoo!"