Part of the job description of a columnist involves wading into quicksand. So, treacherous as it is, I have to address Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's order that her employees work at the office instead of at home.

Here's my take: I back Mayer, with a few provisos and to-be-sures. In Yahoo's troubled history, the times demand all hands on deck.

As much as we are tempted to judge the issue in a societal frame -- we all want parents to have more flexible working hours -- this is primarily about one company's fate.

Given that, we have to give leeway to a CEO who has been brought in with the mission of shaking up the status quo.

I understand the objections. As I write these words, I am at the Mercury News bureau at San Jose City Hall, a remote location that Mayer might or might not approve.

In judging the Yahoo CEO's order, you nonetheless have to take three factors into account.

First, in the big sense, she's right. Any tech company profits from interactions among employees -- the idea dropped at the water cooler, a piece of code made more elegant, the odd avenue of inspiration.

Morphing

Anyone who has covered the valley knows that initial ideas can morph into something else. PayPal began with the idea of splitting up payments between friends. It made its success as an enabler of online transactions.


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This is stuff that can't be captured completely in email or Skype. It can't be planned for a 2:30 meeting. Mayer's edict honors the power of serendipity. When we don't know what direction creativity will take us, we do better together.

Second, Yahoo faces a more difficult situation than other companies. While it enjoys a great legacy, the Internet pioneer is fighting for its future, having squandered its natural advantages to Google and Facebook.

In some sense, Yahoo needs to think like a startup -- with the urgent vision that has kindled the valley's best ideas.

While startups may have a star or two who telecommutes, the creative leaders usually show up to argue with one another and chart the future.

Finally, the edict won't prevail as much as the stories suggest. It helps to think of Mayer's order in market terms. She clearly is ready to part with some folks who work at home. The order implies she doesn't have great respect for remote engineers.

But if she has a star -- and for now, the stars tend to go to Facebook or Google -- my guess is that she'll be open to a deal allowing them to work part-time from home.

Dissidents

Sure, you can raise complaints. If someone has to commute two hours, it wastes time. Young parents should have the right to flexibility in work hours. Face time doesn't equal production. Loudmouths mar the creativity at the office.

But this is an emergency time for Yahoo, and ordinary rules don't apply. Mayer's goal of a tighter and more creative organization trumps notions of individual freedom.

It could all change. Yahoo could return to its old perks. For now, though, I'm willing to bet the company needs live bodies present and talking face-to-face.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.