Work isn't like it used to be. Millions of people are forced to adopt precarious zero-hours contracts where they don't even know what they will earn from one week to the next. Most service and hospitality jobs hover at, or around, the minimum wage and many people blame migration for destroying their own job stability.
This is the work environment that many people recognise today and this dissatisfaction with the realities of work in 2016 is partly why the UK population chose Brexit and why the USA is flirting with President Trump. Many people really don't like the way that the world is organised today.
So it's in this environment that my jaw nearly hit the floor when I read a recent Bloomberg interview with the Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. Mayer talked to Bloomberg about the challenge of trying to turn around Yahoo! - a task that appears to be never-ending - and trying to sell the company at the same time. Verizon has now agreed to purchase Yahoo! for $4.8 billion, which is peanuts compared to the value of the company prior to Mayer coming on board. In 2008 Microsoft offered almost $45 billion for Yahoo! and that looked like a low offer compared to earlier valuations.
In the Bloomberg interview Mayer made at least three statements that are contentious:
- Successful employees should be ready to work all night - she claims that she did all-nighters at least once a week when working for Google.
- A 130-hour working week is entirely feasible so long as you organise your life effectively.
- You can tell if a startup will succeed if you visit their office on a Saturday afternoon and find everyone hard at work.
First let's put Mayer's own wealth into context. Mayer has been paid $117 million by Yahoo! in the past five years and her personal net worth is estimated as $500 million. If she is forced out of the company once the purchase by Verizon is complete then she will receive a guaranteed $54.89 million golden parachute as a farewell gift.
I don't dispute the fact that hard work is valuable and can contribute enormously to business and personal success. Clearly hard work has paid off for Mayer as she now has half a billion dollars in the bank, but where I disagree with her is in the way that she defines being present at the office as being the same as being hard at work.
There are 168 hours in total in one week. If you sleep for eight hours each night then the total time left in a week is just 112 hours - less that the 130 hours that Mayer suggests it is possible to be at work. The idea that working all night is something that should be regularly expected is also nonsense. I've done some all-night and all-day sessions when I've been particularly busy, but it's the exception, not something that should happen every week.
Mayer is in the privileged position of being so wealthy that the help she requires to clean her home, manage her laundry, and care for her children is easy to find. It's easy to talk about being a superman or superwoman, holding down a big job, and raising kids when your concept of a million dollars is like $100 to most people.
The need to be seen to be working excessive hours - even when sick - is a feature of modern corporate life that more leaders should be challenging, not endorsing. I used to work for an American company where I was mocked by colleagues if I left the office before 6pm - 11 hours after I started work. I knew that I usually delivered everything required of me in the morning and then spent the afternoons managing email and in meetings. I could usually have left much earlier and still been just as productive for the company.
Today I get paid by what I deliver to clients, not by hours spent inside an office. This means that I can organise my life much more effectively and without corporate politics, but most people are still stuck in an environment where time and presenteeism counts more than what is actually delivered. The need to create a better work/life balance is an endless cry from these workers, yet as Marissa Mayer shows, the real problem is when leaders don't understand the needs of their workers.
It's hard to care for kids and work long hours on minimum wage. If I led Yahoo! I'd try listening to what the workers really want and how they can deliver more for the company without working 130-hour weeks. Should we really be listening to business advice from someone who failed to save an iconic brand and will walk away with over $50m whatever happens anyway?