Were Yahoo right to ban flexible working?

Yahoo caused a bit of a stir this week with the news that head of HR Jackie Reses had sent an internal memo announcing that, as of June, flexible working arrangements would be banned completely.

The move is all part of the efforts by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer to reshape the one time web leader anew and that means getting staff back into the office.

Here’s a snippet of the leaked email:

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

 “Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch”

Naturally, it’s provoked widespread criticism not just from irked employees, but advocates of pragmatic, flexible approaches to work from across the globe. Opinions have ranged from ‘counter-intuitive’ and ‘perplexing’ to, at worst ‘retrograde’, ‘oppressive and ‘severely outdated’.

Mayer’s justification is a desire to have employees in the office in order to foster better culture, and it does seem clear that Yahoo’s policy was being abused. The Huffington Post has reported numerous sources that many workers were ‘milking’ the company, exploiting the initiative to such an extent that employees were “slacking off like crazy, not being available, and spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo projects.” Not every company is ready for the implementation of smarter working, and one size most certainly does not fit all.

Trust is a fundamental necessity to any flexible working policy, and, in extreme but mostly rare cases, it can be open to exploitation. Sometimes, firms are still looking at initiatives such as ‘home’ working or ‘flexible’ working in isolation. And if it isn’t implemented well, or taken away in the case of Yahoo, it can appear drastic and possibly generate negative attention.

By viewing the broader picture of ‘smarter working’, it puts the onus of on the employee(s) to decide what would be best for them. Therefore, if you need to be in the office to collaborate then so be it – but then the company may need to re-think its workspaces to give employees quiet areas, collaboration zones, and the technology to enable smarter working. Some commentators have pointed to Mayer’s former employer from which she’s taken many ideas, Google, as a company that requires employees to be in the office. But no company in Silicon Valley has issued an outright ban in this fashion.

I do have some sympathy with Yahoo, though. For some organisations, if you need to glue the culture back together, physical proximity is one of the quickest ways to do so. And for some sectors, remote working is not suitable; the marketing industry may be one of them where the physical interactions are one of its major attractions. But it is possible have the best of both worlds with some thorough planning, a rigorous workplace audit and clearly defined parameters.

Smarter forms of working are only going to become more of a necessity for all companies, whatever the guise. Increasing connectivity and a ‘flattening’ of networks means that for employees at multinational corporations (or indeed, any company with serious aspirations for global growth), they’re engaging with colleagues, customers and intermediaries all over the world in multiple time zones.

The recent 4G auction, for example, is another innovation that further emphasises the need for businesses to address this issue now. With the traditional barriers to smartphone and tablet usage (small data capacities, slow file transfer and lengthy loading times) gradually being removed, these platforms are going to become an even more integral part of people’s lives as convergence accelerates.

As a business, to ignore this fundamental behavioural change would undermine any attempt to foster positive internal culture, thus further hindering productivity, morale and efficiency. This is particularly true as new generations of millennials enter industries with completely uninhibited approaches to employment, skilfully juggling work and play with little regard for the confines of 9-5. As a result, companies need to adapt to both the evolving landscape and the changing behaviours of its employees in order to get the best out of them.

To even begin to set about doing this, attitudes first need to change. It’s not just about flexible working. It’s about smarter working. Do what’s right for your company, not just following the pack.

 

Amanda Phillips is MD and Head of Strategy, Volume Global