In the past two weeks there’s been a buzz in the world of business generated by two firms changing longstanding flexible working arrangements. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced an end to the firm’s liberal telecommuting policy, and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly tossed out the firm’s long publicized Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) approach that offered location and time flexibility to non-store employees.
Not incidentally, both firms are fighting for corporate survival.
I suspect that the fundamental problems of two firms who no longer exist for completely obvious reasons, have as their root causes, something much deeper than whether butts are in seats behind the same walls every single day.
Like politics and religion, this topic is personal and controversial. I’ve yet to run into someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. You can intuit my position from the headline of this post.
Not All Roles Demand Physical Proximity:
Certainly, the nature of an individual’s work plays a critical factor in location choice. Some functions are highly interdependent and there’s little option for location or time flexibility. Other roles are highly independent and whether the individual commutes to a cubicle or works from a quiet room in her home and engages via video or audio conferencing is essentially meaningless.
As an experienced executive accustomed to both leading widely dispersed teams at market leading firms, and to working comfortably anywhere I can connect and engage, I struggle to understand the office-only mentality for all positions and all employees.
For firms that are dependent upon engaging and motivating the best available talent, demanding daily physical presence is just dumb. You reduce the size of the target talent pool, increase costs of acquiring, moving, housing and transporting these employees, and any gains in productivity for requiring this class of knowledge or creative workers to be in-office are subjective at best.
The stress of a flexible work-location approach is mostly borne by the remote individuals who may miss opportunities to build relationships that lead to career advancement. Nonetheless, for many groups of knowledge workers, the flexibility is worth the risk.
Sometimes, There’s No Substitute for Being in the Same Room:
I’m a huge fan of periodic (not constant) contact with team members and colleagues for creative and personal reasons. It is essential, even for globally distributed project teams. There are many circumstances where technology is just a poor substitute for sitting down with a group or breaking bread over lunch with your peers. We build relationships best in-person. However, the command for all employees to be in-place and imprisoned 8-5 feels like a carry-over from a bygone era.
The Organization as a Young Tool of Creation:
The organization as a critical tool of management and human invention is a relatively young institution. Frankly, our collective mindset on managing is young as well and hasn’t perhaps yet found the best approaches to harnessing the advances in technology and resources available around the globe and around the clock thanks to globalization.
The troubles of two firms who tried something new and are now retreating from their experimental approaches shouldn’t dissuade other firms from searching for the balance that works best for their people, their customers and their top and bottom lines. And speaking of the bottom line:
The Bottom-Line for Now:
There’s a world of possibilities in experimenting with the organizational model and location is one of the variables. While the nature of the work should drive the decision, if physical presence isn’t absolutely essential, I’ll take the smartest and most creative people I can find, regardless of location. I’ll figure out how to adapt my management system and technology tools to support their efforts to do their best work.
And yes, one has to wonder whether Mayer and Joly may be fixing the wrong problem.
Additional Resource: from HBR Blog Network-The End of Results Only at Best Buy is Bad News (great post…even greater comments!)
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