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Yahoo’s new work policy: bold move, bad delivery

February 27, 2013, 1:23 AM UTC

FORTUNE — Marissa Mayer made a global splash last summer for landing the Yahoo CEO job while six months pregnant.

Then she grabbed the spotlight for starting a cultural revolution at the dozing tech giant—using perks like free smartphones and her so-called PB&J initiative to un-stick innovation.

Today, with Mayer making the front page of the
New York Times
(above the fold, no less) for her decision to require employees to work in the office rather than at home, we wonder: Has America’s youngest Fortune 500 CEO and most famous working mom jumped the shark?

While opinions fly every which way across social media (“Back to the stone age” went one Tweet, while Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown Tweeted ”Cheers for Marissa Mayer…not afraid to be retro when it works”), here’s my perspective, knowing Mayer through her Google career and talking with her for her first interview as Yahoo’s CEO: The new HR policy is shocking in its extreme measure and harsh delivery.

The main problem is how the new rule got communicated. EVP Jackie Reses, a Mayer recruit who oversees business development and M&A as well as HR, issued a cut-and-dry email to employees that inevitably leaked and got skewered en masse. Had Mayer announced the policy publicly and more elegantly—noting that in-person collaboration spurs innovation, which is the fix that Yahoo needs most—she could have avoided the brouhaha.

Neither Mayer nor Reses are willing to talk about the HR policy or the controversy it has ignited. If they did, they might reveal that in practice, the new rule is not as Draconian as Reses’ email implies. Yahoo managers are already starting to advocate for exceptions to the no-work-at-home dictum. Mayer, who often brings her five-month-old son Macallister to her office, will likely grant exceptions and be very particular about them. Yahoo employees wonder: Where will she draw the line?

MORE: 6 ways to survive a hellishly long commute

For instance, what happens to Yahoo News reporters and bloggers, who spend the bulk of their time working on the road? Mayer would be short-sighted to require them to work on campus. And if she prohibits Yahoo’s “acqui-hires”—employees at tiny startups that Mayer has bought mainly to upgrade the in-house engineering talent—from working wherever they want, those buyouts might sour.

No doubt, Yahoo’s new policy jibes with Mayer’s longtime management philosophy. She has always strived to bring employees together—at parties at her home for Googlers at every level, for trips around the world that she led for young Google product managers, and for her weekly FYI meetings at Yahoo. I hear that Mayer, 37, tends to be the last to leave these Friday all-hands gatherings.

You can chalk Yahoo’s controversial new HR policy up to a bold move by a boss who is surprising people with her toughness—and has lifted the company’s stock more than 30% since she arrived.

Knowing Mayer, she will carefully measure the progress of this grand HR experiment–and, we hope, report the results publicly in a year so corporate America can learn from the Yahoo case study.

Meanwhile, we can’t help but notice the irony in both Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who was once her colleague at Google, waging campaigns for people to come together physically. To promote Lean In, her book that hits the market in March, Sandberg calls for women across the universe to convene “Lean In” circles and talk about their careers.

Obviously, for the two Most Powerful Women in Silicon Valley, virtual is not good enough.