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Chicago’s women execs split on Yahoo CEO’s telecommuting ban

Yahoo CEO MarissMayer appearing NBC News' 'Today' show Wednesday Feb. 20 2013 New York. AP

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appearing on NBC News' "Today" show, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 in New York. AP

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Updated: March 28, 2013 6:34AM

Chicago’s female business leaders are just as divided as the work world over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s controversial move to ban her employees from working at home — an edict the notorious workaholic issued just five months after she had a baby boy, returned to work two weeks after giving birth and built a nursery next to her office.

Mayer, one of the most powerful women in the male-dominated technology industry, is trying to revive the long-flailing Yahoo.

The company’s human resources chief said in a memo to employees that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of West Dundee-based software firm Davisware, called Mayer’s decision un-family friendly.

“It is going back to an old-school way of thinking,” Davis said.

While Davis said a balance must exist in how much time an employee stays away from the office, Davis, 42, and her husband, Daniel, 47, the company’s co-founder and CEO, have placed top priority on giving employees flexibility throughout their company’s 25-year history. The company sells software that handles accounting, purchasing, inventory and other back-office functions for clients in the heating and air-conditioning business and those that repair restaurant equipment and gas-station pumps.

The couple has six children ages 6 to 18. They and many of their employees coach or have coached their children’s sports teams. The Davises moved the company’s headquarters to West Dundee from East Dundee nine years ago so their children could walk there after school.

“I am such a big believer in family,” Jennifer Davis said Tuesday. “I believe in being able to get the kids off of the school bus. Those 10 minutes are 10 minutes you never get back. … As long as the employees are getting their work done, I don’t care how it happens. If there is a mutual respect, no one feels taken advantage of.”

Of Davisware’s 77 employees, 47 work in India and 30 in the United States. Of the 30 based in America, 10 work entirely from the office, 11 work part-time at the office and part-time at home, and nine work entirely from home. Of the nine who work from home, one works out of Downstate East Dubuque and the rest work outside of other sites in the Midwest.

Davis sees the setup as critical to the company’s success because employees stay with the company, gain expertise and engender trust among clients. The company has grown to $5.5 million in revenues from $1 million nine years ago.

Erica Levin, co-founder of Cheeky Chicago, a women’s webzine, events organizer and loyalty program sponsor, said she agrees with the Yahoo policy decision because “there is something to be said for being in the same room, feeling the camaraderie, bouncing ideas off of each other and working toward the same goal. … That’s the energy and cooperative nature of a community.”

Cheeky Chicago requires its employees, ranging from five to eight depending on how many interns are working, to come to the office.

Levin is among those who argue that creativity and innovation are the keys to a company’s success. The debate pits innovation believers against those focused primarily on productivity.

“We usually lunch at our desks, but I can walk to the bathroom and talk to three people, and there is something to be said for those casual encounters,” Levin said of the company’s headquarters space at the 1871 technology hub at the Merchandise Mart. “In today’s tech-driven world, it’s so easy to sit behind our computers, wear our pajamas and never talk to anyone.”

Ilene Gordon, CEO of Ingredion, formerly Corn Products International, the Westchester-based food ingredients maker, said the company believes in flexibility, especially for employees who travel a great deal.

Though Ingredion has no official policy on telecommuting, Gordon said the company operates in 40 countries, so people may be working as part of a team from a remote site and joining in team meetings from another part of the world.

“I think being flexible is important,” she said, noting that a flexible policy can be a key tool in recruiting talent. “At the same time, you need a very committed work force that is excited about the strategy and winning in the marketplace, and is totally committed to making the company successful.”

Andrea Zopp, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, said she believes the Yahoo directive is a mistake.

She said she was “kind of shocked” by such a broad-brush approach, given her experiences running human relations at Exelon and in leadership positions at Sears Holdings Corp. and Sara Lee.

Zopp said the telecommuting horse is out of the barn, and today’s technology allows companies to address the situation with creativity.

“You can have required sessions, have everybody have to be in on a particular day or once a month or whatever it is,” she said.

The Yahoo stance “is not reflective of the kind of attitude of the up-and-coming generation, who grew up in a tech world, and so I think in the long run, you make a mistake. Going backwards doesn’t strike me as the approach, which is what the feel of that is.”

The Urban League, which employs 54 people, has no official telecommuting policy.

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