Yahoo is not the only firm that doesn’t like flexible working

Yahoo! Sunnyvale headquarters.  October 28, 2001 (Y! Photo / Brian McGuiness)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.