Timing isn't everything but it certainly can heighten the drama of otherwise unrelated events. Consider, for example, that this first week of March is National Telework Week. If you are fortunate enough to be in the workforce, that coincidence should strike you as more than a little ironic. Within the past 12 days, two large, financially-struggling corporations (Yahoo! and Best Buy) have rescinded certain internal workplace flexibility policies that include working remotely (aka telework). They both intended to do this quietly, privately, but this is not an era that respects privacy, and keeping anything as counter-intuitive as this news quiet is not possible.
But, hold on a minute. In the highly competitive work-life and wider HR community, neither of these companies are recognized as "employers of choice" as defined by earning a perch on any of the current 100 Best lists (Fortune; Working Mother). So you might be wondering who cares about what a few less than stellar companies in trouble do when they panic? That was my reaction too until I realized that this fracas has lifted the curtain to reveal a glimpse of some curious behavior that goes on in boardrooms. Some lessons can be abstracted that can help the rest of us avoid Yahoo!'s mistakes.
My intent is not to rehash the firestorm of public reaction to these decisions by a wide variety of experts many of whom are my professional colleagues. The bottom line of all this accumulated testimony is, in fact, all about the bottom line. Decades of social science research provide more than sufficient practical and empirical evidence that optimizing the degree of control workers have over the conditions of their work results in measurable benefits for all organizational stakeholders: the workers themselves, their families and communities, the deliverables and business outcomes of the enterprises that employ them, the satisfaction of clients, the fortunes of shareholders via higher stock values and greater return on shareholder value, even better health outcomes. These are facts -- researchable, quantifiable, replicated across numerous work environments, not only in this country but around the globe. So, if this is true, we work-life experts are perpetually asked, why don't all leaders everywhere get it and integrate what we call the 'work-life portfolio' into business strategy? Why are there occasional retrenchments like these?
Three realities intrude with predictable frequency:
• These benefits don't accrue automatically, as if by magic. Similar to a financial portfolio, they don't yield returns at the same time. In a surprising number of organizations no one bothers to collect relevant metrics at all. Leaders change and commitment to staying the course -- any course -- ebbs and flows.
• Like any complex business strategy, it takes a clear vision, a sense of mission, and technical expertise to implement an appropriately customized work-life portfolio. Workplace flexibility doesn't come naturally to any organization because its prerequisites are trust and an equitable distribution of control -- thorny issues that require training, change management skills collaboration, monitoring and practice.
• Facts wither in the face of belief systems. Like the rest of us, when leaders are frightened by the prospect of failure, they tend to ignore what they know (intellectually) in favor of doing what they believe (instinctively). There is a knee-jerk reaction to gain control over what is perceived to be a deteriorating situation. Control by leadership runs into direct conflict with any control exerted by workers, so the latter has to be terminated.
Make no mistake -- it is a strong belief system we are witnessing in this situation -- an old, familiar one that views the "ideal worker" as one who is always in the office, visible, following orders. Every seasoned work-life practitioner has been here multiple times before. Just when we think that agile, healthier, more creative ways to work are taking root, we're rousted out yet again, roughly and with sudden force. "All hands on deck!" As with disputes over evolution and climate change, scientific evidence has throughout history been resolutely discarded by "true believers" when facts don't support their view of how the world works. It's no different in the boardroom; remember the genesis of the Great Recession? As Daniel Pink so aptly described this scenario in his book Drive, "there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does."
Part 2 of this blog will be posted next week.