“One of the many reasons I’m glad I no longer work for anyone but myself is that – unless I crack under the pressure of erratic income, increasing bills and no-one to explain basic accounting to me – I will never find myself in the position that Yahoo!’s 11,500 employees recently suddenly found themselves in.
Their new boss and former chief of Google, Marissa Mayer, has told them all that from now on there is to be no more remote working. In order to foster the collaborative, cooperative environment Mayer deems essential to the productivity of staff and success of the company, everyone is to head back into the meatspace pronto, or consider themselves fired. (Sidebar: I have never used the word ‘meatspace’ before. I feel both thrilled and utterly desolate.)
Cue uproar – from the employees, from campaigners for flexible working who were beginning to think the tide was turning in their favour, and from working-and-childbearing-age women who are the group who, broadly speaking, benefit most from such arrangements. There was an underlying – and indeed sometimes overlying – pained tone in much of the reporting of Mayer’s decision that stemmed from the fact that she herself is a new mother and should therefore, so the reasoning goes, be much more sympathetic to the benefits of working from home to that demographic.
In an ideal world, I would agree. Then again, in an ideal world, everyone should dedicate their every action to delivering the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. But as we don’t live in an ideal world, I am loathe to criticise Mayer for a decision that a male CEO would have made in a heartbeat if he held the same views as Mayer and who probably wouldn’t have drawn nearly as much criticism if he did. But I am also loathe to criticise Mayer on gender grounds because in this instance I think it obscures a much greater and more pressing problem, which is the relationship between the modern individual and the modern job.
Who has the power in the workplace: boss or worker?
What was most interesting about the response to Mayer was the number of people who came out in support of her. Every one of them was the head of a company or business of some kind – the most famous among them being Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue who said that she too required people to work in the office as much as possible to foster the necessary creativity for the magazine. None of them was an employee. So what does that tell us? Well, among many other things it surely tells us that flexible working benefits employees more than employers. Which leads to the question – is this a bad thing? Which leads on to other questions, like – who has the power in the workplace: boss or worker? Should there be systems in place to help counteract that imbalance? If so, do we have them? Are they accessible? Are they effective?
In the general absence of old-fashioned things like trade unions (so effectively dismantled in the Seventies and Eighties by those who had much to gain by their neutering), employers wield enormous power over their workforce and – human nature being what it is, especially when allied to the prospect of making money – require very little encouragement to abuse it. Employment rights – and their close cousin, anti-discrimination legislation – have been hard-won over the years. They have never not been under threat, and the threat is increasing as the economy grinds to a halt.
It is in these already toxic circumstances that the government would also like us to trade in our work rights (such as the right to claim unfair dismissal, redundancy pay, take time off for training and so on, as well as having to give twice as much notice of intent to return from parental leave) for shares in the companies they work for. More profoundly, such rights – by their very existence as much as by their exercise – fight against the increasingly strong and increasingly pervasive belief that living is something you do in order to work, rather than work being something we do in order to live. Who, we must always, always ask ourselves, benefits from this? Who do you think?”
Email Lucy at lucy.mangan@stylist. co.uk or tweet her @LucyMangan
Additional image: Rex