I was taken aback last week, to put it mildly, by the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Meyer's take on flexible working. It struck me as being an enormously retrograde step, based on mistaken views, and doubly puzzling coming both from the boss of a technology firm and someone who has at other times been a beacon for equality and forward thinking. After all, Meyer was the first female engineer at Google and is the first female CEO of Yahoo.
Meyer's HR department recently sent a memo effectively banning staff from working at home, saying that "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home". The memo was swiftly doing the viral rounds, and has sparked vigorous reactions on both sides of the argument. Flexible working devotees came out in howls of protest. Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, for example sided strongly with Meyer in an article in The Guardian over the weekend.
As a long-time flexible worker myself, and the managing director of a specialist leadership and executive coaching organisation, I work alongside a team of similarly flexible consultants. For me this is not a question of either/or. Of course there are times when we need to meet in person and the kind of social interaction and information sharing that can occur in offices can be very beneficial, but to say that workers are unproductive at home is a myth.
My company coaches hundreds of women - mainly lawyers and bankers, granted, so definitely Type A personalities. Many of them work flexibly and if anything I worry that they overdo it at home because they feel 'privileged' to be able to work in that way. One young female lawyer, an aspiring partner and a new mother, described her day at home (or "missing in action" as one manager once described it as to me), saying how she made herself a packed lunch at breakfast time to take into her study so she could work solidly all day without leaving her chair!
That said, I'm certainly not advocating remote working for all, or for all of the time. One of my daughter's friends in her mid 20s has a well paid job as an analyst with complete autonomy over where she works. She goes into the office about one day a month. But she's leaving because it's not sociable enough. She sees an office environment as somewhere you go to socialise with others as well as work. Another associate lawyer I coach, who is fantastically grateful to be allowed to work from home a couple of days a week, finds that she isn't taking that up because she doesn't feel she can interrupt via email or phone her senior partners for advice. Whereas in the office she can doorstep them more easily to get a minute of their time. Anachronistic as this sounds, there's no doubt that she isn't alone in feeling that way. Many firms have a long way to go in changing their cultures for remote working to actually work. But I still don't think the problem is with flexible working. I still see it as a question of changing corporate cultures to catch up with the technology. Going backwards isn't the answer. In contrast to Yahoo, BT is trail blazing for telecommuting. BT encourages everyone to work from home, at least part of the time, which apart from being commercially sensible, given the nature of their business, is also proving very productive. BT has seen 20% increases in productivity from their infinitely more satisfied employees.
You could forgive Shulman for not getting with the flexi-programme. Vogue, one imagines, would be unlikely to be at the forefront of many trends in the workplace, other than sartorial ones of course, but Yahoo? Surely that's an own goal commercially for Meyer to discourage remote working?
I feel uncomfortable about the idea that graduates have to be chained to their desks for a couple of years just so they can absorb the super slick business practices of their baby boomer employers. Practices such as an over-dependence on having to physically see staff to believe that they are working? Or an inability to parcel up work into outputs so performance can be fairly measured? The office is not always the hotbed of efficiency that Meyer would like it to be. I think we baby boomers should get our younger Gen Y colleagues to show us what communication looks like in today's teched-up world.
My kids' ability to have packed social lives without seemingly planning anything is a mystery, not for them the constraints of Microsoft Outlook or even Doodle. No, they just text each other on the evening in question and sort of gravitate towards each other. Sounds trivial, but I'm sure that's something we could learn from. Too many senior people have diaries / schedules which are full up for the next couple of months. You can't help but wonder how anything that's not "meeting-shaped or meeting-worthy" like someone having a flash of inspiration and just needs a sounding board to make it into a good idea ever penetrates this wall of planned efficiency.
Flexible working demands mutual trust from both the employer and employee. Clearly much of that trust has evaporated at Yahoo. Successful flexible working also demands a new set of productivity measures, light years away from a traditional reliance on presenteeism. This debate is beset with crude stereotypes on both sides - the dull, time-serving office worker, with their jacket on the back of the chair; and the home worker in their pyjamas, surfing the internet with half an eye on daytime TV. Neither is accurate. One size does not fit all. Failure of either system to deliver productive results is a failure of management and trust, and not an inherent flaw. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic about everyone's motivation levels - or maybe I'm just spoiled by working with a team of extremely motivated, hard-working mothers that I trust completely!