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In Defence of Flexible Working: The Fuzzy-Slippered Rebuttal

01/03/2013 17:51 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 10:12 BST

The twittersphere is still atwitter this morning with news of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to revoke homeworking privileges for staff. Yahoos, as they are known, have been called back to the mothership and their groans of displeasure are joined by leagues of flexible working proponents, journalists, and fellow business leaders, all dismayed at the very public step backwards into the workplace dark ages of the still wobbly tech firm.

Certainly Yahoo wouldn't be the first Silicon Valley tech firm to want all their staff coming into the office every day. Google's cultish drive to create a home away from home for Googlers has set an almost unachievable bar for workplace design and their amenity culture sees that every need is catered to, save cleaning staff's bums. (Wait... they do that too.)

This seems on the surface a fair enough request. Yahoo employ people with really big brains. They want them all in the same place so their brains can bump into one another to collaborate, communicate, innovate, and a plethora of other corporate buzz words that equate to driving profits. So why has this caused such furore?

Because she's wrong

A culture of "presenteesim", the old-fashioned notion that to be productive you must be physically present in the office, is one of the most counterproductive, uncreative, and costly management approaches in practice.

Presenteeism does not equal collaboration

There is a rather deeply held and yet erroneous assumption that by throwing people in the same room and giving them beanbag chairs and decent coffee, they will spontaneously create new and exciting ideas that move a business forward. But as anyone who has ever sent an email to the person sitting next to them can attest, being present in a space doesn't mean you'll actually talk to each other.

And despite Mayer's belief that working from home negatively effects speed and productivity, the data simply doesn't support this. A recent Stanford study gave scientific backing to what anecdotal research has been saying for years: telecommuters are more productive than their office working colleagues. Homeworking participants in the study showed a 13% performance increase. But they weren't just better workers, they were happier workers, with their attrition rate half of that of their office based counterparts and improved satisfaction rates as well.

Presenteeism will not inspire a positive change in company culture

A foundational element of a driven culture is autonomy, anathema to presenteeism. Regardless of how well-designed a workplace is, it's just a gilded cage without the autonomous culture to support it.

I read the "confidential" Yahoo memo. I understand that the company line may be that you can "wait for the cable man," but we all know the underlying message here. Go ahead. Make a few personal appointments on company time, but you risk the respect of your cohort, and even worse, your job. (Interesting, if not a bit disheartening, is the fact that telecommuting participants in the Stanford study were promoted less frequently than their office based colleagues, despite better performance. Presenteeism strikes again.)

Presenteeism costs companies money

UK business experience a loss in productivity from mental health illness estimated at £15.1 billion per year, the great majority of this loss driven by presenteeism, not absenteeism. Businesses that drive a culture of presenteeism force people into work even when a day working from home would be healthier and more productive. Additionally, less than half of us in the UK take all of our holidays. It's no wonder stress related illnesses cost UK businesses £28bil. And this phenomenon is more prevalent in white collar workers; precisely the workforce Mayer is trying to motivate.

Working in fuzzy slippers does not equate to skiving. It doesn't take an exhaustive research study to tell me what common sense does. I know my speed and quality would be pretty deeply affected if I've dumped my sick child at a day-care just so I can collaborate at my Yahoo office-based "hallway discussion."

Not an issue for Mayer, though, since she built a nursery next to her office at Yahoo HQ. Pretty (hypocritical) cheeky.

Sources:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/feb/25/yahoo-chief-bans-working-home

http://www.businessinsider.com/richard-branson-says-that-marissa-mayer-got-it-wrong-about-remote-employees-2013-2

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/google-benefits-employee-perks_n_1242707.html#s649145&title=Japanese_Toto_Toilets

www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/08/AR2011010800379.html

www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/pdfs/mental_health_at_work.pdf

http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/28/how-yahoo-ceo-marissa-mayer-is-building-a-nursery-by-her-office-and-dissing-working-moms/