Tired old business model damages flexi-working

Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer may have a point. Flexibility will flounder without community, says business author Philip Whiteley.

154016227_9b516326ee_oMarissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo!, caused controversy in February this year by curbing home-working. She cited communication problems in the teams, and felt some people were taking advantage of the greater freedom that flexibility on hours and location allowed.

Unsurprisingly, there was sharp criticism. It was held to be a regressive move for employment practices, and for working parents in particular.

Many of these reactions, however, are based on some pretty old-fashioned notions of employee relations and business leadership. Then again, so are some of the voices backing the ‘work-in-one-place’ traditional approach.

Neglecting ‘the soft stuff’

Research on what actually makes for a high-performance, high-engagement workplace, offering great opportunities for staff, highlights the importance of issues that are almost completely neglected in conventional business training programmes, such as the MBA. The key issues turn out to be communication, morale, teamwork, prospects, and organizational culture, which are often wrongly dismissed as ‘the soft stuff’.

What matters is not where people are located, but how good their working relationships are. So was Mayer’s move a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. I don’t work at Yahoo!, and I haven’t interviewed employees there. My point is different: I would encourage a different framing of the issue, and a different question, namely:

Are the relationships, quality of communication, teamwork, career development, work-life balance and overall performance of employees broadly helping it maintain and develop services that delight the customers, in turn helping the company and its profit-making capability, and employment security for staff?

Outdated assumptions

The twentieth century MBA was informed by political theory and zero-sum economics. It was based on the assumption that strategy should be divorced from people management; that employees were mere ‘resources’ with costs attached, and that their interests always conflicted with those of the boss and the owner.

There have been some efforts at renewal, but very piecemeal. Business schools, and management generally, are deeply conservative. As I write, senior managers are basing restructuring decisions informed largely on the cost of hire, as this recent feature highlights. But salary cost is only one element of the total cost of employing people, and is typically dwarfed by problems such as weak skills, poor morale and poor communication (one reason why Mayer may actually have been right).

The modernization required is a conceptual shift that is simple, but with immense implications. Instead of pretending that organisations are structures, we acknowledge that they are communities of people. Very few employers fully grasp this: perhaps Google and Whole Foods; also, less obviously, some more established firms like WL Gore, whose teamwork-based culture has stood the test of time.

New normal

In my new book, New Normal, Radical Shift, co-written with Neela Bettridge, we argue that:

“In the old normal, economics was money and employee relations was war. In the new normal, economics is people and employee relations is communication. This is not a softer alternative, because people can be difficult and communication can be fraught. It is a more realistic one.”

Can you have a high-engagement, high-performance workforce that is geographically dispersed? Absolutely. But only if you treat relationships and communication properly as a business priority, not some optional activity called the ‘soft stuff’.

  • Philip Whiteley is co-author, with business coach and sustainability adviser Neela Bettridge, of New Normal, Radical Shift, published by Gower May 2013. more at http://radical-shift.net

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stewtopia/

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2 replies

  1. Sensible points. Organisations thinking of pulling back from flexible working should learn from this and reconsider their approach.

    Success in flexible working is surely the responsibility of the organisation; employ people who are capable of working flexibly, provide support for those learning to work flexibly, and employ sensible flexible working practices.

    The reality is that some individuals simply don’t operate well in the flexible environment. Equally, some organisations haven’t figured out how to make flexible working operate properly within their organisation. That said, even though some people find flexible working difficult, they can handle it given the right framework, work practice, community, tools and support.

    It’s up to the leaders to get it right and realise that fostering the flexible model requires investment.

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