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Mayer vs. Sandberg in Nursery Smackdown

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The irony is palpable and, for those inclined to schadenfreude, vaguely amusing: Silicon Valley's two most self-righteous and self-promoting female executives are singing from very different choir books.

While Facebook's (FB) Sheryl Sandberg evangelizes the old white men at Davos on the need for women's workplace flexibility, as noted by the Daily Telegraph, Marissa Mayer, her fellow Mistress of the Universe at Yahoo! (YHOO) has eliminated the work-from-home option that benefits thousands of working moms, reported by AllThingsD. Who's right? Well, the feminist blogosphere seems inclined to proclaim a pox on both their houses, as you can see at the Web site, Ph.D.inParenting.com.

But the question stands -- working from home, yay or nay? As a long-term member of the wear-your-boxers-to-work brigade, I can answer with confidence: It depends. Telecommuting seems like a dandy idea as I roll out of bed for my five-second morning commute. But later in the day, as I sit in an empty room, in an empty building, in an empty neighborhood . . . I envision myself as a prisoner sentenced to solitary confinement.

For employers, too, the results are mixed. Cisco (CSCO) reports on its Web site that its Teleworker Initiative generates annual savings of $277 million. Yet these dramatic results are often calculated by the same consultants who developed the programs. Fudges are rampant. For example, do employees actually work the time they would otherwise spend commuting as generally assumed, or do they merely hit the snooze button for an extra hour of sleep?

Punchline: The apparent tension between Sandberg and Mayer is illustrative of a deeper truth. The complex calculus of corporate culture can't be reduced to universal generalities and simplistic studies. Thus a policy that flies at Facebook may be yucky for Yahoo!

So let's be kind and assume that Sandberg and Mayer are both correct. Perhaps Mayer isn't an insensitive, rhymes-with-witch who Global Post reports ordered an executive suite nursery for her newborn son but forbids her minions spend time with their own children; maybe the secret sauce at Yahoo! truly requires that all the chefs be in the kitchen. And Sandberg's idealistic proposals might amount to more than just book tour chatter and ginning up interest for a political campaign.

In short, set aside the histrionics and let the free market work its timeless magic. Knowledge workers who enjoy the quotidian buzz of a bustling office can work for Yahoo! -- and those who value a malleable workplace can sign-on at Facebook.

The Career Iconoclast's Weekly Action Items

1. Are you are an innie or an outie? Could working from home help or hinder your work/life balance? Have a frank discussion with your telecommuting colleagues to understand better the pros and cons of working from home at your individual company. Likewise, before taking the telecommuting plunge, consider the option of working remotely once or twice a week. Splitting the difference may well provide the benefits of both corporate and home office environments.

2. As a manager, do you have a ready answer for the valued employee or able applicant who proposes to work from home? If there's a single lesson to learn from the Yahoo! debacle, it's that the telecommuting genie cannot be put back in the bottle. So consider carefully the qualitative and quantitative implications of a telecommuting policy before granting ad hoc privileges to individual departments or employees.

3.In the "Comments" section below, predict the date that Yahoo! will reverse or markedly dilute Marissa Mayer's "Physically Together" policy. (To provide some context, it took Coca Cola 78 days to abandon its disastrous "New Coke" decision.) The winner will join me for a long lunch at the Harvard Club of New York City.

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