February 24, 2013
Yahoo is not the only firm that doesn’t like flexible working
As news emerged over the weekend from Silicon Valley that Yahoo had introduced a new policy that insisted employees work from the company’s HQ, a survey from O2 in the UK highlighted just how many firms are not as keen on the practice of flexible working as they might claim in theory. The question we need to ask is whether this represents a genuine shift away from the assumption that we are moving towards more agile working practices, or is this just the last knockings of the old guard?
On Friday the management of Yahoo sent a memo to employees to let them know in no uncertain terms that the days of homeworking were well and truly over and that from then on everybody was expected to work from the company’s offices. A copy of the memo was leaked online by employees shocked at the new approach, not least those who had negotiated flexible working arrangements as part of their terms of employment.
This approach goes against the grain for employees in the tech industries where flexible working is seen as the norm so long as the work gets done on time. But at least the memo attempts to explain the decision when it says:
Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
It’s a very fair point and is backed up by all we know from research into the way humans interact. For all that we might have the technological capability never to meet our colleagues, we work with them better and in different ways when we actually spend time with them
The knowledge of this might be why so many firms appear to regard flexible working more favourably in theory than in practice, according to a report from O2 that appeared by happy coincidence on the same day and which we reported on Friday.
According to the survey of 400 businesses and 2,000 workers by communications giant O2 staff and employers have different views on the willingness of firms to implement flexible working arrangements. Around three quarters of the employees surveyed claimed they were more productive with flexible working arrangements and ten percent said they regarded flexible working as more of a priority than pay or holidays.
However their experience of the readiness of organisations to provide flexible working was at odds with the perceptions of employers. While nearly 80 per cent of employers said flexible working was encouraged in their organisation, fewer than one in five staff agreed.
The juxtaposition of these two stories is too neat not to beg a number of questions about the true nature of flexible working. It’s understandable that employees are very keen on the idea and the evidence does indeed suggest that for many people and many tasks, flexible working is not only a productive way of working, but helps retain key staff and improves personal wellbeing.
However, the nature of the human animal is such that we need the company of other people and an association with our most important social structures –including our employers – to work in particular ways and on particular tasks. Yahoo might have gone too far the other way, but they’re not alone in perceiving the benefits of having everybody in one place.
One intriguing point that the O2 report also raises is why there is such a marked mismatch between the perceptions of staff and employers. Is it because a lot of firms feel obliged to echo the received wisdom about flexible working in order to fit in to a paradigm and/or attract staff, while believing in practice that it’s best to have everybody in an office for much of the time? Or is that organisations and employees have different ideas about what constitutes flexible working in the first place? Or is it simply that managers don’t trust staff? Something else or a mixture of all of the above?
It’s a complex picture and one that creates tensions even in Silicon Valley where we would assume the 9 to 5 is anathema. The only thing we know for sure is that reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated.
February 25, 2013 @ 1:46 pm
There is no one size fits all and working occassionally from home where it fits business and personal needs is a real opportunity for the business and individual. So is the Yahoo intolerance of flexible working a failure in management and corporate culture. I wonder if staff are still expected to take work home ?
February 25, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
Hi Paul. This is evidently a complex picture. I know we’re about to publish a piece looking at this in the context of today’s latest ONS stats on the increased takeup of homeworking, which may lead us to conclude that there are major issues of perception and expectations in the O2 data. Although we also know that no such data in the case of either report is likely to be gospel.
With regards to Yahoo, it may only be a one-off example of a corporate diktat that backfires on them and, as you say, may also be one that betrays the firm’s attempts to have their cake and eat it.
February 25, 2013 @ 2:52 pm
The polarisation of the debate is intriguing and brings into play more questions about the preparations for agile and the competence if leaders and teams in working lifetime away from the office.
1. If you simply tell everyone regardless of role, time in the business and competence that they can work wherever they want to work, then expect problems.
2. If you don’t teach managers and their people new awarenesses, skills and frameworks in which to operate again you will experience disengagement and people ..’going native’ after the honeymoon period is over.
Our experience is that you have to almost licence people to work more of their time away from the office and teach new skills create an effective ‘virtual handshake’.
Most people and organisations benefit from the opportunity to alter their schedules to work a little more time away from the office and work at different times, but this doesnt mean abdicating the responsibility for managing or creating social cohesion.
Yahoo and others should take a long hardlook at their leadership competences and processes instead of this lurch back into an 18th century approach to managing…
February 25, 2013 @ 2:58 pm
Hi Andrew. Or maybe their hand will be forced by employees deciding they need to work somewhere else?
February 25, 2013 @ 2:59 pm
Mark, in direct answer to your observations regarding the O2 research….Most organisations offer agile options if people ask for them…but few organisations actualy promote them as a ligitimate and desirable way of doing business.
That’s why organisations say they offer flexible/agile options but their employees don’t percieve that they do.
That’s my take anyway…
February 25, 2013 @ 3:06 pm
Could be Mark. Lets be right…some people in some roles may not be right for agile ways of working, but many will….the name of the game is to move to an agile world with aconscious and deliberate supported strategy …as opposed to an uncontrolled free for all.
In putting together our high performing virtual teams workshop we developed a detailed framework for organisations to follow..If organisations like Yahoo had adopted it they would not find themselves in knee jerk mode. I am sure their heavy handed approach will lead to a loss of morale…
February 26, 2013 @ 9:39 am
Paul’s comment above really hit a chord for me. I have seen this in a number of businesses I’ve worked with where working from home is “not allowed” and yet they ensure all individuals can so that in cases of emergency or snow they can work. It seems hypocritical to take these opposing stances.
In my experience, the same way that individuals need to be taught to manage a team, or taught to manage upwards, they need to be taught to manage themselves and their day if they are working from home. I am a strong believer in flexibility in the workplace but also see great value in working in teams and with other individuals.
It’s when businesses try to fit flexible working into an inflexible offering that it can go wrong. What works for one person won’t work for another. Some people will rise to the challenge and others will struggle. Good managers will recognise the differing needs and abilities and train / guide / manage the individuals accordingly. This is not easy but then good management of people, teams and projects never is.
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February 28, 2013 @ 3:18 pm
In my experience as a change manager, flexible working has been offered / initiated as a cost saving measure by corporate real estate – which is a great catalyst but the real challenge and implementation comes from leadership. As both Andrew and Paula have pointed out – skills for leaders and teams and real choice about where to work not perceived choice. Most managers still talk the talk but not the walk as the pervading corporate culture is often one of presenteeism.
People need to feel like they belong when they go into the office and having to fight for a shared desk space doesn’t create that, so why go unless the workspace has been specifically designed to meet the business vision. And the change journey has been integrated as the way we do things round here regardless of role or status.
Generic flexible working spaces only meet limited roles and requirements, true activity based working designed spaces meet everyones’ needs – but these are more expensive and the pressure is to reduce real estate costs. Time to engage the CEO in activity based working so they understand the impact of good workspace design on their bottom line. Not just the cost savings of flexible working and reduction in real estate – its the people that generate business growth.
March 1, 2013 @ 12:32 pm
i have to agree with elisabeth – the big picture is that the current agile working notions are “experiments” , we have been talking ourselves blue reminding people/clients that we are social animals and the office needs to respond to this. Disparate working is not helpful to a business, flexible working can be helpful to the individual…we live in a time of wanting security in our workplace as well. its now more than ever that good design not style over substance) is good for business.
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