Recently, Yahoo and Best Buy, two companies that were pioneers in implementing flexible working practices announced that they were canceling the policies, forcing workers back to the cubicle. Best Buy called it Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), the idea being if a non-store employee get results, it doesn’t matter where or when they do the work. It had been in place for years until CEO Hubert Joly announced in February that he was ending the policy, saying it was “fundamentally flawed from a leadership standpoint.” At Yahoo, CEO Marissa Mayer said, “We need to be one Yahoo and that starts with physically being together.”
This dramatic about-face has triggered an intense debate, and while there are certainly arguments supporting these decisions, a casual look at opinions in established business publications on the web indicates that there are far more against it. Many criticize both companies for penalizing workers for an increasingly faulty business model. A flexible work scenario, they argue, is not the problem.
In a recent Forbes interview, management consultant David Heinemeier Hansson said, “Desperate times lead companies to desperate measures. It’s much easier to find a scapegoat, like ‘those slackers working from home!,’ than dealing with years of mismanagement…Yahoo and Best Buy’s problems are not caused by underperforming remote workers, they’re caused by a changing competitive landscape that they did not keep up with,”
Gary Peterson, also in Forbes, wrote of Best Buy: “Mr. Joly’s recent decision to end the practice appears to be a short-term treatment of a symptom rather than a long-term cure of the root problem.”
Telework pioneer Jack Nilles proclaimed, “Yahoo Marches Resolutely into the 19th Century.”
When Best Buy’s spokeperson asserted the policy was scrapped in favor of an “all-hands-on-deck approach [that] will lead to collaboration,” National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep joked, “Anybody who works in a crowded office will understand this collaboration. You can do your online shopping, make restaurant reservations and deal with personal family problems over the phone, while getting advice from your co-workers in nearby cubicles.”
I find this debate especially interesting given my experience with Robert Kennedy College that offers the opportunity for what can be called a Results Only Learning Environment: you get out of it what you put into it. What do you think? Is a flexible, work-from-home scenario a liability or a benefit? Has your experience with remote study at RKC changed your thinking on the issue?
As a business owner, I have had experience with both remote employees and office-bound employees.
The short answer is some employees require constant supervision or they will produce nothing, others do not.
The key to obtaining production from the “constant supervision” group is an environment where they are not being distracted and where they may be supervised.
However, it is just as easy to supervise a remote emplyee given the correct technology as it is to supervise an office-bound employee.
Whether an employee is allowed to work remotely or not depends on what systems and functions are in place to ensure their productivity.
In a work environment, some employees are tasked with creating a product and some are tasked with being innovative and finding faster, more practical ways of doing things, thinking of new directions, etc. As such, those tasked with merely producing something using a rote set of functions need to be supervised in a manner that will ensure that they contunue to perform those rote sets of functions.
Those whose task it is is to dream up new ideas, etc., sometimes require stimulation from interaction with others. Often, an idea is spawned from group discussions that spur one member of the group to have a good idea.
If all employees are remote and no methods are put into place that facilitate these discussions then innovation can falter.
In summary, it is not whether an employee is remote or not, but whether the top leadership has identified what is necessary to ensure production, communication, and teamwork no matter which method is used.
At the end of the day, in todays rapidly changing world, innovation and creativity is what makes a company succeed. Innovation requires smart people who are given freedom to create and observe the world around them. Being cloistered in an office does not necessarily provide that, but sitting in an office at home likewise does not.
Based on my experience, the issue is not necessarily the employees location – remote or on-site – but rather the degree to which an organization is able to align and define SMART employee KPIs which are properly linked to organizational goals and objectives, as well as the ability to objectively measure these KPIs in order to determine employee performance/contribution to these goals.
The degree to which an organization has matured in the area of performance management determines the potential for success or otherwise for that organization regardless of prevailing policy – ‘Work from Home’ or ‘Work from Office’.
This requirement is however more pertinent for a ‘Work from Home’ policy – given the potential for limited direct supervision – this is the basis for the rather false perception that the policy in itself is to blame for poor results et al; as in the case of Yahoo and Best Buy.
There are definitely significant benefits to be gained from a ‘Work from Home’ policy, the real issue is the absence of a key prerequisite – mature performance management processes – thus implementation of a ‘Work from Home’ policy is doomed to fail not necessarily because the policy is flawed as portrayed by the Yahoo and Best Buy – to the contrary, it fails because this key prerequisite does not exist.
In my view, any organization looking to implement a ‘Work from Home’ policy needs to manage the transition properly and look to first establish and entrench a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) – to use the Best Buy acronym – and then transit to a ‘Work from Home’ policy. Having a ROWE and culture provides the foundation for a successful implementation of a “Work from Home” policy.
In summary the “Work from Home” policy in itself is positive and a trend that is here to stay. The real question is whether the organization has laid the right foundation for the success of a ‘Work from home policy’.
As a Management Consultant, I have at least four different work location possibilities: client location; our Head Office; my home office; and airplanes or trains. My CEO is fine with this, as he expect results regardless of work location.
I had “Work from Home” employees for over 30 years. I had a translator direct report who best works from midnight to 8 am. I had employees from different nationalities who had work limitations because of their religions. Working from home was ideal for them. I think that for me, results count regardless of the work location. Of course, I understand that this is linked to the nature of the work. While working from home is fine for a translator or webmaster, it is impossible for a bank client facing customer service representative.
I support the “Work from Home” idea, when agreeable for both the leader and the employee, and possible by the nature of the work. For me, there are minimum risks, as the leader/manager need to be in constant contact with direct reports and should know the employees, the work, and work at improving both, regardless of work locations.