Jocelyn Elise Crowley says Yahoo! chief's decision to end telecommuting doesn't reflect a trend

When it comes to the Internet, Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer is regarded as a forward-thinker who has sped the evolution of web portals and search engines.

Mothers Unite!
Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life taps into the attitudes of working and stay-at-home mothers.
Credit: Cornell University-ILR Press

But in terms of workplace flexibility, the former Google geek’s decision to nix telecommuting at Yahoo! appears downright archaic to Jocelyn Elise Crowley.

 “Such rules and regulations seem almost antiquated to me,” said  Crowley, a Rutgers professor of public policy and author of Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life (ILR Press, June 2013). “It’s just not the way I believe the trends are going.”

That Mayer, 37, was pregnant with her first child when she took the helm at Yahoo! in July and built a nursery for her infant son next to her office makes her edict all the more “shocking,” said Crowley, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. 

Still, Crowley said she doesn’t anticipate a large-scale backlash on the advancement of workplace flexibility – quite simply, because it works. Data show job-sharing, working remotely and flexible start and stop times benefit both employees and employers, she said, increasing productivity while cutting costs and companies’ carbon footprint.

“Who cares if they’re doing it at 9 in the morning or at 5 in the evening or at 9 at night, as long as they’re producing a quality product,” she said.

According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit group following our changing work force, more employers are embracing flexible work options than not, with 63 percent reporting they allow employees to work remotely, up from 34 percent in 2005.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley
Rutgers professor of public policy and author Jocelyn Elise Crowley's interest in workplace flexibility stems from her experiences growing up with a single mother.

It’s a significant departure from the rigid, 9-to-5 rules Crowley recalls her mother contending with in the early 1980s when she reentered the workforce after her divorce. Crowley said her mom scrambled to make ends meet, working hourly jobs as a secretary at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey during the week and as a Sears cashier on the weekends while raising Crowley, then 7, and her sister, 9.

“Even as a child I remember how scary it was,” she said.  “In a sense, we were very economically vulnerable until she was able to secure a decent child support award from my father.”

As an unsalaried single mom, every hour of wages counted, making illness her mother’s worst nightmare.

“I remember her being very fearful of either my sister or me getting sick. She would often say ‘Is there any possibility you could tough it out at school?’ ” said Crowley, whose interest in family policy and the subject of workplace flexibility stems from the struggles her family endured. “That’s a really sad situation for a mother to be in.”

And one that still plagues many women, said Crowley, who interviewed 125 members from five mother’s groups – half stay-at-home, half working – for Mothers Unite! The book taps into the attitudes of both groups and asks them to describe their ideal job.

Whether salaried or hourly, on the job or at home, Crowley’s subjects were unanimous in their response: flexible work arrangements.

“We get stuck with this mommy war idea that these two sets of mothers don’t agree on anything, and when it comes to workplace flexibility they clearly do,” she said.

Though strides have been made in workplace flexibility, dealing with family illness remains a chief concern of mothers, who are the predominate caregivers of children and elderly parents.

When illness arises, women want what Crowley’s mom wanted: to care for their family without being penalized at work.  Hourly employees lose pay – and often their jobs –  while salaried employees lose face.

“A lot of them talked about the fear they when they had to get their child from school; about their employers not necessarily understanding or not being gracious,” she said. One woman told of a boss demanding she send an assistant to pick up her sick son from school and bring him to the office so she could remain at work.

“Having these flexible policies that don’t make you feel bad and don’t make you feel guilty, that would be the ultimate goal,” Crowley said, with benefits for part-time and hourly workers a close runner up.

Getting over this hump requires a change in culture that Crowley said won’t happen until more men help out at home and take up the mantle for flexibility.

“Some fathers are hesitant or scared to take on flexibility and that devalues it,” she said, adding it is still rare for men to take time away from work to care for their children. “It’s not seen as the masculine or manly thing to do or they are afraid it could hurt their career.”

Thankful for the benefits afforded her as a Rutgers faculty member, Crowley said Mothers Unite! is her effort to champion those who don’t enjoy the same benefits and acknowledge the hardships her mother endured. Crowley’s mother went on to earn a master’s in human development from Fairleigh Dickinson University and worked her way up at UMDNJ to become administrative director of the New Jersey Pain Institute before retiring in 2003.

“It’s kind of a big thank you to her because she worked so hard to get back on her feet,” she said. “And I have an incredible sense of gratitude for that.”