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Searching for Stability in Changing Times

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2013 is just two months old and already headlines from the national and international stage leave us wondering, "Does anything endure? When we wake up tomorrow, can we count on something (or someone) that will remain intact?" Perhaps a small sample of "for instances" best illustrate:

• 2013 stories from the world of sport have rocked the credibility of our great athletic heroes. The young football star, runner-up for the Heisman trophy and captain of the revered Notre Dame team admits that he never met the "love of his life" whose tragic, but fictitious, death attracted universal sympathy and support for the player throughout the 2012 season. The greatest cyclist of all time, a hero on the bike and off for his brave and philanthropic battles against cancer, admits he cheated; that all the lives he ruined and fans and sponsors he duped were victims of a crueler, intentional, self-serving hoax. And most tragic of all, the double-amputee South African sprinter who captured the world's imagination and universal respect at the London Olympics, admitted to killing his defenseless girlfriend under highly questionable circumstances.

• In politics, the across the board budget cuts that both US Presidential candidates and all congressional leaders said would never happen, did. While more than two-thirds of the American public feel that these arbitrary cuts will hurt the economy and agree that a mix of increased revenues and thoughtful budget cuts are necessary to get the economy on the right track, US leaders cannot find a way past their differences to perform their most basic function: agree on a budget for the government. And these problems pale when compared to the continuing instability in the Middle East and persistent poverty elsewhere in the world that seem more precarious and give us reason to be more pessimistic than ever.

• In perhaps the most stable organization in the world, the Catholic Church, its Holy Father swiftly and unexpectedly resigns - the first time a Pope has done so in over 600 years. While many Catholics may find this news understandable in light of the Pope's age and diminished health, the news sent shock waves through the Church that claims more than one-billion members worldwide.

It is against this backdrop, a moderately large, but struggling internet company makes headlines by taking a giant step ... backwards. Its young, female CEO, ostensibly in an effort to increase innovation and productivity by getting "all hands on-deck," makes a decision to return to an entirely face-to-face culture, eliminating one of the most highly valued contemporary workplace features - flexibility.

The Yahoo! decision had many dubious aspects to it. First, the value proposition of any technology company will prominently include providing users with the ability to access information where and when they need it, making trips to the office far less necessary. That is a major reason why so many organizations have invested heavily in the internet and portable technology devices. Second, there is little research that supports that working from home or remotely costs money or undermines productivity, quite the contrary. Most employers embrace these as productivity enhancers, to cut costs, as well as to increase employee well-being and engagement. Third, when a CEO is trying to reenergize a troubled organization, there are two leadership strategies that hardly ever work: A) making across the boards changes to improve outcomes regardless of whether they make business sense and (B) eliminating highly-valued employee programs when employee commitment is needed most.

Does the idea of eliminating some remote work have any basis for support? Yes. If a goal is to increase collaboration, some face-to-face interaction will help. If there was abuse by some employees utilizing flexibility, those cases need to be addressed (although flexibility abuse is often wildly exaggerated to justify not commencing or discontinuing such programs). If employees require an urgent, in-depth understanding of the critical strategic changes needed to "right the ship", some increased office presence is useful. Do any of these reasons mean that eliminating telecommuting and remote work for all was a wise decision? Absolutely not. Hence the hugely public and overwhelmingly negative outcry resulting from a corporate decision by a second-tier player in the high-technology sector - a sector generally known for being in the vanguard of progressive workplace practices.

So what could be the rationale for making such a decision and why such a dramatic and swift reaction from so many? My guess would be as follows: A young, relatively new, female (sorry, but that is part of the story) CEO, whose entire work history is in one highly successful "show up at the office every day" culture (i.e. Google) is charged with turning around a struggling corporation. Yes, being female is part of the story for two reasons. First, unfortunately, the decisions and actions of a female CEO are more closely scrutinized than their male counterparts. Second, the expectation is that female managers are more supportive of work-life issues than their male counterparts, but this is not supported by research. She is also new to the demands of being a working parent (and personally has unlimited financial resources to support her in this arena.) She may well have assessed that a key to establishing herself as a successful turnaround leader is by issuing a sweeping, one-size-fits-all corporate edict. Following such decisions, few in the organization will be in doubt regarding who's in charge. If the edict plays well with cautious investors and more conservative managers who are inclined to believe that these "new ways of working don't work," all the better. Make a sweeping change and people will sit-up and pay attention, even if most do so for the wrong reasons.

Or it may just be an example of a person grasping for what's familiar. Trying to find stability in a highly unstable world. Finding comfort in what we "know" works. Perhaps because every day the world around us makes us feel our moral and institutional foundations are crumbling faster than we can assimilate and deal with. This shift towards a more traditional way of operating, that represents an attempt to find firm footing in a rapidly changing world, may have exactly the opposite effect it is aiming for. The result will likely be far more cars in the parking lot but far fewer committed employees.