Striking a balance with home working

Posted on : 28-02-2013 | By : jo.rose | In : General News

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The announcement this week from Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, banning the practice of working from home has divided opinion. In the case of Yahoo’s employees, she is clearly worried about the staff “slacking off” and missing the interaction with colleagues at a time when the company is under huge competitive pressure to survive. She needs to reignite the “spirit of collaboration”.

Shortly after the announcement, industry figures chipped in with their contributions.

Sir Richard Branson was quick to post his opposition to the edict from Mayer, saying that to work successfully with other colleagues depends on “trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision”.

In contrast, good old Donald Trump tweeted that Mayer is right to expect Yahoo employees to come to the workplace, adding “She is doing a great job!”

One former IBM employee went to the social media airwaves stating that that the policy was silly and short-sighted for three reasons.

  1. First, unproductive staff will be unproductive anywhere
  2. Second, Yahoo now risks losing top performers, and;
  3. Third the policy speaks of control and distrust unlikely to boost morale and engagement

We tend to agree with much of this. The problem really is in the all or nothing approach that Mayer has adopted. It is about how to create an environment that fosters productivity, regardless of physical location (indeed, it was recently estimated that $1.4 trillion is lost each year in productivity, irrespective of the seating arrangements).

The priority should be on finding better ways of working collaboratively.

The last couple of decades have brought a level of flexibility in working practices which we believe have hugely benefited both employee and employer. In the mid 90’s we started to talk about “work-life balance” and, through changing practices and technological advancements, this has evolved to where we are today.

Indeed, Charles Handy, the author/philosopher specialising in organisational behaviour and management, said;

“For the first time in the human experience, we have a chance to shape our work to suit the way we live instead of our lives to fit our work. We would be mad to miss the chance.”

However, there are of course pitfalls to allowing home working. Simply offering up the option as a kind of supplement to other rewards on an individual/piecemeal basis does not help to maximise efficiency. Similar to adopting a policy of employing remote workers or offshore resource on a case-by-case basis…it doesn’t work without looking at the bigger picture on both sides.

Here are a few thoughts in terms of a more efficient home working environment;

  • Define an operating model – this isn’t just HR policies and procedures, or leaving the ability to grant approval for home working to management/supervisors. For certain roles, particularly highly standardised or task-based, the location is truly irrelevant (so long as the rest of the environment is fit for purpose). At the other end of the spectrum there are others which require a lot more thinking in terms of team collaboration or outcome driven deliverables. Providing a schedule of onsite/home working that matches the role requirements is key. All roles need to have a defined set of principles and governance within which staff can operate efficiently. Where teams are transient, such as for projects, this structure should be well known to all and discussed/agreed effectively as part of the terms of reference for a project.
  • Build an effective “home office” space – a dedicated workspace where working at home can be achieved without the distraction of everyday life is very important. Some of it depends on your own personal discipline (see below), but where an individual works is very important. It should, of course, have the requisite technology specific to a role, but also be free from television, kids, spouses brandishing “chore requests” etc… (It is crucial to remember that personal interaction is very important, so when in the home office staff should seek to balance the day with some form of human interaction to recharge through conversation.
  • Personal Discipline – the clue in “working from home” is in the term itself. If you are one of those people easily distracted then you should avoid. Employers worry (sometimes justifiably) that by being out of sight staff will spend the whole day surfing, tweeting or on social media sites (again, some of this may be sorted through remote technology provisions). Discipline wise it is also important to have structure to the working day. With nobody potentially looking over your shoulder, you need to set clear objectives to avoid wasting the day…the pressure of an office environment is impossible to completely recreate, particularly the vision of your boss marching “Alex Ferguson style” across the floor, but you should be conscious that whilst the surrounding is more informal the role is not.
  • Oversight/Monitoring – productivity is always difficult to measure. To the point raised earlier, a balance of trust needs to be struck.  Pockets of resistance will always exist – typically from managers who can’t operate unless they are breathing down the necks of their staff.One effective measure that is used in some of the more innovative and successful technology companies is to place a much greater emphasis on peer review. For example, I was speaking to a colleague at Google recently who said that staff are not necessarily managed within the traditional organisation hierarchy – they could effectively operate their own hours as long as the objectives were delivered. When it came to assessing performance it was their peers who provided the measurement of achievement and ultimately, appraisal input. It worked really well.

For flexible working to succeed, managers need to manage their staff on the basis of results, and give them the tools necessary to achieve them.  Let’s see how Yahoo get on…