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

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.”

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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.

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