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Reading the Healthcare IT Zeitgest: Why We’re Heading Down to ‘Nawlins for HIMSS13

March 1, 2013
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How a Fortune 500 CEO’s misunderstanding of the tenor of the times relates to HIMSS13


It’s been fascinating for me to follow the uproar over the revelation in the past week that Marissa Mayer, one of only a handful of women leading Fortune 500 companies, unilaterally decreed recently that no one working at Yahoo Inc. will be able to telecommute anymore, but instead will be required to come into the corporate headquarters office every weekday. Really? In Silicon Valley? With many, many employees who are young millennials trying to start families? And as a woman CEO with a very young child herself?

Here’s how Jessica Guynn of the Los Angeles Times put it in a story on the brouhaha earlier this week: “Marissa Mayer, one of only a handful of women leading Fortune 500 companies, has become the talk of Twitter and Silicon Valley for her controversial move to end telecommuting at the struggling Internet pioneer. From the start, Mayer, who at 37 is one of Silicon Valley’s most notorious workaholics, was not the role model that some working moms were hoping for. The former Google Inc. executive stirred up controversy by taking the demanding top job at Yahoo when she was five months pregnant and then taking only two weeks of maternity leave. Mayer built a nursery next to her office at her own expense to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.”

Guynn goes on to report that, “Now working moms are in an uproar because they believe that Mayer is setting them back by taking away their flexible working arrangements. Many view telecommuting as the only way time-crunched women can care for young children and advance their careers without the pay, privilege or perks that come with being the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.”

Not surprisingly, Mayer has inadvertently made herself a lightning rod for the cauldron of issues around how working women can balance parenthood, career, and life. And that in itself is interesting.

But what I’m particularly fascinated by is how Mayer could have so incorrectly read the Zeitgeist. Does she not realize that telecommuting is the wave not only of the future, but even of the present? We’re all working in organizations that are increasingly allowing more employees to work remotely, for a wide variety of reasons. And in industries like publishing, where I work, telecommuting is rapidly becoming almost a norm, for a variety of reasons related to finding good talent, supporting working parents, and yes, let’s face it, saving money on corporate office rent and office supplies.

And the Mayer controversy struck me as particularly fascinating at a time when we at Healthcare Informatics are preparing to fly down to New Orleans for HIMSS13, because for me, the annual HIMSS Conference has always been about reading the tenor of the times—which in German is rendered as “Zeitgeist”—“spirit of the times”; and in French as “l’air du temps,” basically the same idea. Meeting with industry leaders, listening to their keynote speeches and workshop presentations, meeting with leaders from patient care organizations, respected consultants, healthcare IT vendors, and others, always gives me an extra dose of perspective, even beyond the multiple interviews I do every week by phone.

And every year, certain buzzwords and “buzz phrases,” certain concepts, rise to the fore, adding a special flavor to each particular HIMSS Conference. So as often as I hear people saying that the HIMSS Conference will soon become irrelevant—either because they think it’s just too big (37,000-plus attendees in 2012), too much of a time commitment for the incredibly busy people to break away from their day-to-day jobs in healthcare organizations, too vendor-focused, or simply too complex and unmanageable—the HIMSS Conference re-convinces me of its relevance.

There’s something unique about the annual HIMSS Conference, and, after having participated in 21 “HIMSSes” before this year, I can say that it provides unique value to the industry. Certainly, one gets a sense of the zeitgeist, or “l’air du temps,” in healthcare and healthcare IT, in a way that is simply impossible anywhere else.

Perhaps if Marissa Mayer had had a chance to attend a gathering of Fortune 500-type CEOs—or a meeting of U.S. women executives—she might have realized that banning telecommuting was moving against the zeitgeist. Who knows? But as we wend our way down to the Crescent City, I look forward to reveling with my fellow conference attendees in the unique “crazed swirl” of HIMSS each year—and in our together touching “l’air du temps” of our fascinating, dynamic industry.