Mayer vs. Sandberg: More Flexibility, Less Telecommuting?

Female business leaders have been speaking out lately. On the heels of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has released a new book described by many as a call to action for women in the workplace. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead challenges women to be ambitious, demand a seat at the table and speak up. Sandberg argues that despite the fact that more women than men receive college degrees and make up almost 50 percent of the workforce, women still don't share an equal role in the workplace. She goes on to say that women should be able to have a career and leave the office at 5:30 for dinner with the kids. The key to this, she says, is flexibility. Sandberg is calling for more flexibility in the workplace while Mayer is taking away telecommuting from Yahoo employees. Their statements are not as different as they seem.

Mayer's recent demand that Yahoo! employees work in the office may be a reaction to a situation that has gotten out of control at Yahoo!, but her decision drew a lot of criticism from workers and pundits across the United States. After all, access to technology should result in more flexible in the workplace. So why is Mayer being so rigid?

My answer to that: she is not being inflexible, she is being a leader. Mayer is the latest in a string of CEOs charged with turning around the long-foundering tech giant. The task before her is huge, and one thing is clear: business as usual is not going to return Yahoo! to viability.

I do not see Mayer's decision to cut full-time telecommuting as punitive or arbitrary. To me, it looks like an effort to make a substantial culture change at Yahoo -- to foster innovation, collaboration and camaraderie. This is a time to have all hands on deck. Mayer understands this is a good decision for Yahoo! right now.

According to a widely published memo explaining her decision, Mayer says: "To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side." Great companies have great cultures. No matter how well we can connect through cyber space, there is no substitute for being in one another's presence. As Mayer says, "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."

Sandberg, however, is calling for more flexibility in the workplace not less, especially for women. Every parent knows that sometimes life's drama happens during the day. A sick kid, car trouble or a home repair demands that employers offer flexibility and trust their employees will not take advantage of the situation. Sadly, the media coverage of Mayer's memo failed to acknowledge that Mayer, too, acknowledges the need for flexibility: "And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration," Mayer says.

Hubert Joly, the current CEO of embattled electronics company Best Buy, recently made a similar decision to Mayer's but received far less attention for it. Joly's reasoning for ending telecommuting at Best Buy was to scare employees, too. Employees, according to Joly, "need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable." Joly's words makes you wonder if Mayer's decision on telecommuting received so much attention because she is a woman.

Looking closely at both Sandberg and Mayer's recent comments makes you realize that both successful women agree: women need flexibility to become leaders.