HR News & Trends

The Flexible Work Debate: New Way of Working vs. Old Way of Thinking

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Marissa Mayer left Google to tackle what ailed Yahoo. And this week she took on … telecommuting.

Yahoos were pleased with the new iPhones and free food from the new boss – a Google-icious touch. But, depending on the speaker, this “bold,” “outrageous,” or “1950s” decree eliminating work from home has stirred up comment, incredulity and outrage from coast to coast.

Beneath the visceral reactions, I see three important issues:

  • Telecommuting is progressing from a questionable practice toward an unquestioned entitlement.
  • Its supply or denial seems increasingly based on personal need rather than business imperative.
  • Many successful organizations reject telecommuting as a productivity tool – and Ms. Mayer thrived in one at Google.

A trend toward a new conventional wisdom?

For the record, I am a longtime flexible schedule consultant and advocate. I cut my teeth managing my first flexible workplace 40 years ago in Silicon Valley.

I support offsite work and have run an all-remote consulting firm for a dozen years. But, I only practice what I see as business-beneficial flexibility.

Yahoo is not a high-profile flex firm. But like hundreds of employers, it has apparently joined the trend of allowing employees to work partly or fully offsite.

There may be strong business reasons for having done this: reducing office costs, hiring remote stars, retaining great talent, reducing carbon footprint, enhancing productivity.

Or not. For all any of us know, Yahoo may have simply joined a trend toward a new conventional wisdom.

A new focus on the business at Yahoo

As recently as a decade ago, another conventional wisdom reigned. In it, most managers thought telecommuting was an unwise gamble. Wouldn’t “work at home” really mean watching Oprah, doing the laundry and being AWOL from all that flowed from the water cooler?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Judging from today’s blog, Twitter, news and talk show outpouring, there is a new conventional wisdom. In it, Marissa Mayer has done the unthinkable. According to various complaints, she is a new mom who is denying women the right to work at home with their families; she has broken agreements that people took for granted; she is swimming upstream, trying to bring back “the old GM” model.

Bogus or not, she grounds her actions in a vision of the best way for Yahoo to do business. According to the smoking Yahoo memo: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Most intriguing to me is a simple difference: the old conventional wisdom and the new Yahoo memo focus on the business — being productive, collaborative, accessible and innovative.

Flexibility: More of a perk than a business driver?

I believe one can work remotely and achieve these outcomes. The criticisms of Marissa Meyer the last 24 hours focus largely on the personal impact, the disruption, the inconvenience, the retro nature of it all. But who speaks for the business?

To survive, to thrive, to grow, flexible work needs to enable collaboration and to deliver concrete business gains along with employee satisfaction. Perhaps Yahoo’s approach delivered these things and the new sheriff either swept them aside or ranked other values more highly. More likely, flexibility was seen as a “perk” and not an essential business driver.

The greater truth in this dust-up may lie in a simple fact: Marissa Mayer matured as a manager and achieved stunning success at Google – a company noted for its celebration of long hours of collaboration in the office and no great passion for offsite work. Is she likely to adopt a wildly different organizational model? I doubt it.

Google has built an immensely successful and powerful business and organizational model. No matter how business-beneficial, productive and collaborative a flexible model may be, it could face tough going at Yahoo and Google.

But nothing less than a robust form of offsite work is likely to prevail and to assure offsite workers in other companies that new ways of working can overcome old ways of thinking.

Paul Rupert has collaborated with colleagues, clients and business leaders to embed flexibility in the workplace for the past 40 years. His consulting firm, Washington, DC-based Rupert & Company, has provided dozens of major employers with innovative strategies, training and online tools to build the flexibility the market will bear. Paul has played a leading role in developing flexibility systems in companies ranging from Aetna and AOL to Wal-Mart and Xerox, and is the architect of the Co Scheduling approach. Contact him at paulrupertdc@cs.com.
  • Rich Boberg

    Google has become the third largest most valuable company in the world in less than ten years employing the model of employees working and collaborating in the office environment.

    Yahoo! has been steadily dropping in value and lagging in innovation for years using, among other things, the flexible work model. Marissa was brought in to reverse the fall and bring Yahoo! back.

    I think she is 100% doing the right thing. Flexible work arrangements are clearly not the appropriate model for the future of Yahoo!.

  • John Bushfield

    Paul – I’m with you. It’s not a binary issue. Working remotely does not preclude collaboration and communication among employees, and technology advances make it even less of an issue. But that’s not really the point.

    Marissa and Yahoo are essentially circling the wagons and defending an organizational model that’s been in place since WWII. A key tenant of that model says that productivity is a line of sight phenomena; you gotta be at your place of work so management can oversee your activities. As many things are, or at least used to be, the way work was organized was lifted from the military, which, after all, won the freaking war!! Everybody bought into it, other country’s copied it, and business success occurred. It became institutionalized, and hard wired into business schools and corporations.

    Along comes technology and the internet, which has revolutionized and disrupted the way business is conducted. Big time. And, technology has advanced so rapidly that many aspects of our life have been completely transformed in the space of a generation. Social media didn’t exist 10 years ago! For all practical purposes the internet didn’t exist 30 years ago. As a result, people who have recently entered the workforce and those entering today have never known life without the internet and the devices it has spawned. Internet/wireless interaction has been hard wired into the way they work and play, and has blurred the distinction between work and play.

    Demographics and technology will drive a new organizational model. It’s inevitable. And remote contributions from the workforce is, and will be, a key component of the New Way. Yahoo has just shot itself in the leg, and the wound may not heal. It’s very surprising, because they should know better.

  • paul rupert

    Appreciate the different and valuable comments. As I believe Yahoo’s action raises up — and my piece tries to address — there is a valuable discussion to be had here. As John says, the dominant business models remain rooted in the great war — the war we won and the peace American business dominated. Old habits die hard. The new technology-driven ways of working are gaining beachheads and can prove very valuable. But the war is far from over and seeming gains that can’t be well-defended can lose out to a little hand-to-hand combat. In the end, how we work in the future will not depend on old ideas, habits, and preferences nor on new assertions, studies and surveys. The change will come in flexible ways of working proving to be superior ways of winning in business..

  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    I have a real-life take on this. Until a year ago, we were half remote and half in the office. Those who were in the office despised those who “got” to work from home. Those who worked from home, of course, didn’t do it because they were special; they did it because we wanted to work with extremely talented people across the U.S. and Canada and we’re small enough, we just couldn’t afford to move people to Chicago to have the opportunity to work with them. Unfortunately, people don’t see it that way. They see it as unfair they had to get up, get ready for work, commute to the Loop, blah, blah, blah. No matter what we did to create collaboration, the people in the office still despised the people outside of the office.

    In November 2011, partly due to the economy, we decided to give the virtual office a go. Productivity rose more than 30 percent nearly overnight. People began to collaborate and work as a team. Morale lifted instantly. Now, instead of people focusing on what’s fair and what isn’t fair, they hold one another accountable to real goals the move the business forward.

    We try different things to get that water cooler feeling – I do all of my direct report meetings via video Skype, our staff meetings are conducted on Google Hangouts, and teams will keep their video on while they work…it creates the same feeling someone is sitting at the desk next to them.

    I don’t fault Mayer for doing this. It sounds like people were taking advantage and things need to be reeled in. If they want to move toward this model of telecommuting again, the focus has to be on results and not on how many times someone logs into the VPN. They’ll get there.

  • Debra S.

    Productivity is a “line of sight” phenomenon? Seriously? Are we managing a la 1965? Flexible work options, including telecommuting, do not equate to a lack of productivity nor is “in your face/I need to see you” managing the requirement for collaboration and communication. We have evolved far beyond this point and Mayer’s mandate is both a huge step back in time and a clear disregard for what research shows — give an employee the choice between more money or flexibility and they’ll choose the latter. Why? Because life today is far different than life 40 years ago. Many (and yes, this includes myself) have worked tirelessly for years with the C-suite and beyond to change the culture of business to recognize and support diverse needs and capabilities. I’ve been saying this ad nauseam for the past week — bad business decision and I look forward to seeing Yahoo’s exit interview data and retention plans.