A game of two halves

I was fascinated (for any given definition of fascinating) to read in February that Yahoo had banned its employees from working remotely – with the result that several hundred now have to relocate. This seemed, on the face of it, such a retrograde step from such a forward thinking company that it would not have surprised me more if Chelsea had announced that they were keeping a manager for a whole season. (I now feel, after being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live about how Benitez must be feeling being called an “interim”, that I am an honorary Psychopundit and therefore qualified to make such sweeping football generalisations and in-jokes. It’s a funny old game).

Their rationale was that communication and collaboration are key – aren’t they always? – and people need to work side by side to do this. Now, I spend most of my professional life looking at how teams communicate and collaborate, so I certainly agree – but there is a tension here. I undertake work for a number of Universities who are educating the very people who will pay my pension. They are Generation C; Generation Connected. They have spent their formative years staring at a (insert device of choice) and will expect to be able to work like this after they graduate. When they want. Where they want. It will form part of their psychological contract with their employer because they don’t know any other way. And in the battle for talent, places that provide this type of working will have a distinct advantage.

It is worth pointing out that there are many advantages to organisations in allowing flexibility of working practices, or indeed in having members of your team located elsewhere. Flexible working promotes goodwill with staff, and may be more productive for some people who don’t need the structure of a nine to five office location[1]. This blended working style, or “Martini working[2]”, doesn’t suit everyone, but for many it can lead to higher output and greater job satisfaction. In fact, increasing pressures on organisational space and environmental sustainability concerns are already leading to increased hot-desking and flexible working as the norm, built into the strategic plans of Estates Departments countrywide.

So, this poses many challenges. I agree with Yahoo that often, the best ideas come from the informal corridor chats or in the cafeteria (just like in two-day team-builds where the real work happens in the bar about one third of the way down a bottle of gin). But I am not sure that a ban on working remotely is the answer; surely, they are throwing the search engine out with the bathwater? Managing people who work remotely is just like managing people who are co-located; it’s just harder and you have to turn the communication dials up to 11. So maybe it is better, clearer, tighter management that is needed, not a ban on flexibility.

Yahoo was in the top 50 places to work in 2013. It may not be there much longer.

[1] Or spending two hours every day with their nose stuffed into another commuter’s armpit.

[2] Working “any place, anytime, anywhere,” not with a stiff drink.