Sweet Marissa. Don’t let her angelic looks fool you, Marissa Mayer is brilliant, driven and as tough as nails. Mayer, the first female engineer at Google, rose up the management ladder at the search engine company before being named the CEO of Yahoo!. Six months into her tenure as Yahoo! CEO Mayer has sparked a mini-controversy by banning telecommuting. Reaction to Mayer’s edict has been decidedly mixed. The Atlantic and some at Forbes commended Mayer. Bloomberg contributor Kirsten Salyer called the move “risky.” Obviously, the future of telecommuting is inexorably tied to the future of transportation.
Do as we say, not as we do. Big American technology companies make the hardware and software that enable telecommuting Yet these same companies often go out of their way to get their employees to come to the office. Google and Facebook run free Wi-Fi equipped buses for their employees to get from their homes in San Francisco to the offices in the valley. They offer other perks as well. I can say from experience that the free food at the Google cafeterias is excellent. Facebook occasionally declares lock-downs where engineers spend night and day working at the office. This was documented by Fortune magazine in a lengthy article. The description included, “After word leaked that Google was starting work on a “Facebook killer” in summer 2010, Zuckerberg called on engineers to work nights and weekends for 60 days to revamp key social features like photos, groups, and events. Just as it did then, the cafeteria opened up on evenings and weekends this summer, and children dropped in for dinners and good-night hugs before their parents logged back on for late nights.”
On the road again. Human settlement pattern experts have long heralded telecommuting as a major reason to question the need for new roads. Once people telecommute rather than physically commute, they reason, there won’t be a rush hour and the added road capacity will go to waste. So, what should we make of Ms. Mayer’s anti-telecommuting stance? Remember, Ms. Mayer is not some crusty sixty-something working at a K St law firm. She is a tech-savvy 37 year old in Silicon Valley.
The perils of extrapolation. Marissa Mayer is fighting to restore the luster Yahoo! once had. It may be an error to extrapolate Yahoo!’s decision into a social trend. However, almost all of the technology companies that champion telecommuting also seem to have huge corporate campuses. Microsoft, Oracle, Google and Telepresence-maker Cisco have gigantic physical work environments. There is something very powerful in having a group of creative engineers standing at a white board “riffing” ideas. It seems that the jury is still out on the extent to which telecommuting can be practiced.
Rippert’s Read. I think it would be a major mistake to assume significant increases in telecommuting when considering future transportation requirements. This is especially true for areas where technology and innovation are critical to long term economic success. As Northern Virginia makes the transition from government supported industry to a more mixed public and private economy there will be a need for in-person collaboration. The idea of a large number of innovative “virtual companies” may be quite a bit in the future.