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✱ Flexing organisational muscle

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a debate recently when she announced telecommuting would no longer be an option for company employees — a move that seemed to fly in the face of trends towards telecommuting since the 1970s that had largely been pioneered by tech companies. To be blunt, Yahoo! as a company is so moribund that it is probably doomed at this point whatever it does, but the telecommuting debate is interesting nonetheless!

NPR’s Yuki Noguchi says it’s about flexibility vs serendipity:

Davis, a business professor, says what you miss in telecommuting is the “Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you … ” conversations that turn into something more.

“It’s more efficient, but you lose that serendipity,” he says.

This is a common sentiment heard especially from those companies with modern office facilities that contrive to be a home away from home. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the Pixar headquarters have a large atrium and centralised bathrooms so people from all around the building would keep running into each other.

On the other hand, that does not mean there aren’t necessarily real benefits to be had to employees and to the company by practising telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. The question doesn’t have to be answered one way or the other, or decided for all time. Of course, that the debate is happening about Yahoo! is interesting in itself, as Noguchi points out:

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray and Christmas, says tech companies were early adopters of telecommuting, and they’re now finding that the practice sometimes goes too far. But he says it’s interesting that this edict is coming from an Internet company that offers email and instant messaging.

“There’s so much irony here,” Challenger says. “Not only is this high-tech company that’s been at the forefront of the technology that’s changed how we work now asking workers to come back in, but also it’s a 37-year-old mother who is seeing the advantages of being able to balance her work life and her personal life by telecommuting and yet saying, ‘For the good of the company, we can’t do this. We have to change.’ “

I recently worked on a research project with the Singapore government which is investigating telecommuting and flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as a way of solving transport congestion problems. In fact, transport planners around the world love FWAs and can be found constantly recommending them to public policymakers.

What I discovered is that while there is an abundance of research on which kinds of organisations tend to adopt FWAs, for what reasons they do so and what measures can be taken to help persuade them, there is a surprising lack of research evidence on how effective FWAs actually are in practice.

In the literature on the subject, it is often taken as given that FWAs lead to significant productivity increases. I found one paper in which a sceptical author gets out the calculator and attempts to patiently and painstakingly demonstrate that the productivity gains commonly alleged by FWA proponents are in fact impossible. It doesn’t really answer the overall question about the effectiveness of FWAs in general, but it’s quite fun to read.

Surveys of organisations who offer FWAs commonly suggest that they do so for a variety of reasons, one of the most common being to improve staff morale and retention by making the organisation a more desirable place to work. However, it has to be asked whether this simply produces an inflationary effect — although it might advantage the first few firms that do it, does it confer much advantage if everyone does it? This question matters especially if the supposed productivity gains turn out to be greatly overstated.

All in all, I think there are lots of reasons to commend FWAs for employees and for travel planners, but the case seems far less compelling for organisations themselves. The real debate then seems to be about whether we conceive of the practice and experience of work as an end in itself or whether we conceive of work as being directed towards the realisation of organisational goals.

The best organisations of course want to answer both, and have been busily finding their own ways to balance those concerns. But the vast majority of organisations are not in that position. This includes Yahoo!, which was once a great organisation and may well still want to be, but simply can’t afford it. Most organisations have goals that amount to maximising profit, or, in the public and non-profit sector, meeting rigid accountability criteria, and are interested in things like FWAs only to the extent that it helps them succeed on those terms.

While telecommuting might work well for certain kinds of small, distributed organisations (and no doubt a handful of others I haven’t thought of), a compelling case needs to be made for why it is in most organisations’ interests to support it. This is normally done via an appeal to increased productivity, but that is a claim that needs to be empirically tested and more convincingly demonstrated to be persuasive in my view.

Another option is to dramatically reconsider our organisational practices in general so that they align with different values than market capitalism. I suspect that this is what a number of advocates for FWAs really have on their minds, and I am not unsympathetic to that perspective. But if that is the case, I just think it would be more productive to have that conversation on those terms and talk about values, rather than hide behind and therefore implicitly accept the values of market capitalism.

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