By Dave Crisp
The last month saw two major operators in the United States with significant work at home arrangements — Yahoo and Best Buy — end them suddenly.
Both are relatively newly hired turn-around CEOs who seem to have concluded it hurts performance or they can’t turn performance around working in that environment. Without being inside (and possibly for insiders, too) it’s difficult to tell exactly, but both pose questions worth asking about HR strategy.
Former Googler, Marissa Mayer — now the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 at 37 — has gotten the most press, though we seem to be talking about only a couple of hundred people being recalled to a head office with lots of empty space to put them in. (No cost? And not a lot of staff to lose in a troubled company, which might be saving on layoffs if some decide to quit — risky perhaps, but possibly sensible if reports that some were doing little work and even starting side businesses are correct.)
Though Mayer has been accused of hypocrisy for building her own day care near the office for her new baby while cancelling work at home that may have helped new parents, a number of bigger HR questions remain unanswered that are undoubtedly more important than this particular program itself. First and foremost among them is the question why there hasn’t been more rationale given and more communication about help for employees whose lives are turned upside down.
First, observers clearly want to know if Yahoo will be helping new parents in other ways. This is being taken as an attack on women, but so far a fix seems unlikely based on vague comments from the CEO, though it may come as a patch later. More to the point — is the move primarily designed not as a message that Yahoo doesn’t trust absent workers and needs face time as proof of effort, but as a parallel to what Mayer knew at Google, that employees collaborate better face-to-face and can develop more innovations that way?
The latter seems most likely and could be a better rationale if spelled out, which doesn’t seem to have been done clearly at the outset.
Google provides lots of support that makes working on site easier, including busing employees to work on Wi-Fi equipped vehicles so they can start work right away and later take time to enjoy free meals and other on-site perks.
Without all that, the cancelling of work at home has to look punitive — not a great hope for a positive culture change. While some observers blamed HR as the likely source of the cancellation, that seems totally unlikely. But apparently HR didn’t have enough clout to frame the transition to at least appear positive to everyone. All this smacks of inexperience and lack of forethought mostly.
It’s significant coming from a CEO with just one previous company under her belt — always a surprise to find cultures differ dramatically even within the same industry — potentially an expensive lesson to learn at the CEO level.
Far more clear cut is the appearance of Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly’s similar cancellation. He has plenty of other jobs and companies behind him, but maybe a poor view of employees. First there’s his now widely quoted comment to analysts that: "In a turnaround transformation you need to feel disposable as opposed to indispensable."
This followed earlier comments that its ROWE (Results Only Work Environment – or "work whenever and wherever you like" set up) was detrimental to effective leadership. Then a spokesman specifically noted managers can still allow some work-at-home set-ups but, while favoring flexibility, there has to be a “conversation about what the results are and how the work gets done” (Wasn’t there under ROWE?)
All this screams "ending a sense of entitlement" that inevitably hurts performance but, again, without being inside, it’s going to be a while before we hear the deep story on this one about whether it was justified or a "baby with the bathwater" move.
ROWE was touted as such a success at Best Buy for saving millions of dollars and raising productivity that the two OD originators left and wrote a book promoting their consulting about how to install the program elsewhere.
Obviously Best Buy will now return closer to the culture it tried to leave, which was unfortunately characterized by the title of that very book, Why Management Sucks And How To Fix It. Joly is taking a hit for being a tyrant, but he’s at least left the door open for a balanced, thoughtful approach — for some to work at home, if the rationale supports it, while others are in the office, ideally collaborating. Though at first, as with Mayer, it doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind to try to spell out such a positive justification.
So, is work at home a bad idea? Will everyone now kill it off?
Not at all despite the fact many commentators are belatedly jumping on the collaboration bandwagon. In fact, as we’ve noted, dozens of social-media-type internal programs are being set in place to enable and make such programs more productive and collaborative wherever people are working virtually, whether at home or flung across multiple offices around the globe.
Unfortunately it takes time for would-be collaborators to figure out which of these work and which elements don’t and ramp up productivity and innovation. In the mean time, it’s hilarious to see publications which were hyping all the new collaborative virtual technologies a few weeks ago start bashing the idea of working away from a central location. Suck and blow at the same time anyone?
It’s clear work at home doesn’t suit every situation. One CEO who amply demonstrates Google isn’t alone in developing a consistent culture well without it is Tony Hsieh at Zappos, who also fits the humble leader model articulated by author Jim Collins and others — as you can see from his video comments on this issue.
What’s clear is that knee-jerk moves, poorly explained, are not advisable. Google is supremely successful and is innovating rings around most other companies because it has evolved the supports needed to make their particular approach work. Once again, this shows HR practices have to be consistent, that gaps and quick fixes that don’t fit logically with other programs are dangerous.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
Company cultures can’t be created effectively or changed overnight without tremendous care and continuing effort to iron out inconsistencies.