March 23, 2013
In recent media coverage of the decision by Yahoo to ban homeworking as well as a recent survey from Microsoft, the resistance to the idea that people work better when they are allowed to work flexibly has typically been put down to cultural inertia. Sometimes those who have resisted the uptake of flexible working have been portrayed as dinosaurs. While there’s no question that culture and management attitudes do create barriers to the uptake of flexible working, there is a growing recognition that certain flexible working practices may not be appropriate for many people and organisations and even specific sectors. The barriers may be there for a good reason.
The survey published last week by Microsoft in conjunction with Ipsos Mori was typical of the surveys that technology and communications companies produce on the subject. It found that seven in ten of 1000 employees surveyed say they can get more done working away from the office and a third say they can be more creative when they are able to work flexibly. The report then goes on to suggest that the uptake of flexible working is being held back by cultural barriers with nearly three quarters of respondents believing there is a lack of trust within their organisation that remote workers will work as hard as office-based staff.
We have to view such results with caution. Asking people what they think they do and what they actually do are not the same thing. In the case of Yahoo, as the dust settled we discovered that the CEO Marissa Mayer had based her decision to change working practices on data from the company’s network that showed people working from home didn’t log on to the company Virtual Private Network as much as those in the office.
The problem of self diagnosis is also apparent in one specific result from the Microsoft survey. It found that 90 per cent of people surveyed stated that working away from the office makes no difference in terms of their ability to collaborate with colleagues.
While we should be circumspect on the issue of whether people may or may not be more productive when working flexibly, this particular result of the survey is palpable nonsense. There is no question that people work better together and share ideas and information better when they are in physical proximity. That is evident from academic research such as this report from London Metropolitan University or even in the desire by Google to design its new offices in ways that improve the chances for people to come face to face.
What the respondents to the Microsoft survey may be doing is justifying a preference rather than providing a genuine reason. It’s little wonder that the same survey found that human resources managers are amongst the most wary when it comes to flexible working. Almost half of those surveyed expressed concerns about productivity. Over a third (37 per cent) of chief executives and managing directors said they had concerns when it came to trusting people to work away from the office. A similar proportion of all those surveyed (36 per cent) didn’t trust people who aren’t in the office to do work.
There is little doubt that perceptions have shifted. The decision by Yahoo appears to have given a growing number of people permission to question whether a dogmatic approach to flexible working is helpful, especially for those organisations who believe or know that they are better off approaching the issue pragmatically but have feared they may be perceived as taking an unduly cretaceous line on flexible working.
This is the context in which Nicky Richmond of law firm Brecher is able to say in an interview that ‘in an ideal world everybody would come into the office every day’ and in which Lucy Kellaway in the FT can tell a correspondent that:
‘People work better in offices. From the employer’s point of view it makes sense to have everyone working in the same place at the same time. It is better for efficiency, creativity, communication and culture. Everyone seems to have forgotten about this, partly because they want to be seen to be good employers, which they think means accepting flexible working and because technology makes remote working too easy. In due course everyone will realise what you and Ms Mayer already know and the pendulum will swing back.’