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Terri Griffith on Flexible Work

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Yahoo!'s recent announcement to end telecommuting has caused quite the stir. It's hard to be neutral on the topic. (Put me in the 'bad idea' camp.)

I recently spoke about this with Terri Griffith, Professor at Santa Clara University and the author of the award-winning book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive. She is an expert on how you make combined technology and organization decisions and then work these changes into your business. Terri is also one of the 100 honored members of the 2012 Silicon Valley Women of Influence.

PS: You've studied telecommuting and new ways of working since 1984. What do you think of the recent Yahoo! announcement to cancel work at home policies and then Best Buy's cancellation of their results-only work environment? ("Results-only" meaning time on task isn't the focus, rather, did the work get done.)

TG: You can't change just one thing. This is the simplest version of my 25+ years of research and the content of my book, The Plugged-In Manager. You can't drop in a flexible work program and expect a turnaround. Nor can you pull back from flexible work and expect to kickstart innovation. Great changes in organizations come from finding an appropriate mix of the human, technical, and organizational systems for the organization's context at the given moment.

I'm siding with Thomas Lee's article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He followed-up with Erin Lee, associate professor at the University of Minnesota and an early participant in research about the Best Buy program:

...companies are unfairly scapegoating flexible work programs for their subpar performances. "I'm concerned that these flexibility initiatives and telework initiatives are getting blamed for what may be other problems those organizations are facing in the broader market," Kelly said.

I'll grant that Yahoo! and Best Buy need to improve to survive. Many of us have been happy to give them suggestions. Some of these have been knee-jerk posts, but many others highlight that success in any organization comes from aligning a complicated set of moving parts. For example, Jaleh Bisharat, vice president of marketing at oDesk writes, "Flexible Work Can Revolutionize Your Company (If You Do it Right)".

Given the news that Marissa Mayer discovered that some work at home employees didn't seem to be working, I'll guess that there were problems with their work at home practice. Perhaps it was the wrong people, the tools, or the management approach. It's easier to shut something off than it is to fix it.

Best Buy is more confusing. There is solid evidence that their results-only work environment improved performance and reduced turnover. These are covered a book describing the process (Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke -- The Simple Change That Can Make Your Job Terrific) and in top academic articles. Maybe things changed. Maybe the strong implementation around how to work with this kind of flexibility diluted over time.

PS: Given you've been studying these issues since 1984, what do you know about mixing the moving parts together?

TG: I took the Yahoo! events as an opportunity to contact Jack Nilles, he literally wrote the book on telecommuting and telework (he coined the phrases in 1973). He is now the co-founder and president of JALA International, a firm that helps organizations with telecommuting and telework programs.

He's seen it all and had summarized his views around Yahoo! in a post entitled "Yahoo! marches resolutely into the 19th century." I asked him if the "togetherness or nothing" he sees at Yahoo! is common (a single dimension view), and how it can be overcome. He described the process his firm has developed over the years:

We need to know the content of the jobs that people have. What they have to do. How much is location dependent. In most information intensive organizations 70 to 80 percent of what people do doesn't depend on where people are (it can be 40 percent for government agencies given police, garbage, etc.) For places like Yahoo!, in Silicon Valley outside of manufacturing, in principle there's no reason why these people have to be anywhere in particular. What Marissa Mayer is looking for is the serendipity effect. If you throw people together in the hall or cafe amazing things will happen.

The problem with that, is in his experience, most amazing things happen by other kinds of communication and by communication with people who aren't co-located as they are more likely to bring a new perspective to the situation.

What's important then is to set up the organization so that people do communicate effectively no matter where they are. And to insure that the communication in fact takes place.

When JALA introduces telework, they do communication audits to find out who how often different communication modes are used and then point out ways to maintain the same patterns of results. They don't suggest one change, they suggest a set of changes and how to follow the results of those changes.

PS: This sounds more work outcome focused, like the system Best Buy just killed.

TG: Absolutely! When he made that point it took us into a discussion of results-only work environments -- though we hadn't yet seen the Best Buy story. I asked Nilles, "How do you get them to focus on product and outcomes?"

[Working with the telecommuter and the manager:] Start with a diary of what they did in 15 minute intervals [over pre-telework days]. This helps to set up the communication patterns. We then get them to write a contract with what is going to be required over the next period, and how both the telecommuter and the manager will know when it is done properly. If particular tools are needed, then those are specified. We create schedules, and milestones if it's a long project. Get them through that process to create their joint expectations of the work -- never mind the process.

They then work to help the organization with agreements around when work will be finished and how to handle on-call accessibility for changes and contingencies. "That's what we concentrate on -- getting them to specify this work."

PS: Clearly, flexible work environments can work.

Scott Berkun is coming out with a new book based on his time at WordPress.com, an organization where everyone works remotely. In a recent post on his site they asked people to share other companies that are 100 percent distributed and the responses keep coming in.

TG: Flexibility is growing, though these two examples of retraction are getting all the attention right now. It's easier to make a declaration about a new way of work than it is to implement one and keep it improving. As I said above, these are moving parts.

Having the skills to manage in a world with multiple generations, technology in relatively constant change, and practices that get dissected on a public stage is hard. After sharing the ideas of The Plugged-In Manager with many organizations I'm seeing that we need some conceptual changes around what it means to manage and lead in this environment. My thinking is currently focused on how we might lead by letting go. Letting go of physical boundaries, 19th century work practices, and an expectation that change is ever complete may propel some organizations to the front through greater innovation and overall productivity. Watching Yahoo!, Best Buy, and talking with Jack Nilles are great motivations for this work.