Sunday 10 March 2013

Home Alone

Marissa Mayer, the Chief Executive of Yahoo, encountered a considerable amount of mixed press last week with the announcement that, from June, all of her employees would be expected to come into the office in person to do their work. From a company formerly known for prizing the flexibility of its working arrangements this memo, leaked from the office of Jackie Reses, the company's human resources manager, comes as quite a surprise, being merely the latest in line of a number of bold moves brought about to halt the decline of the shrinking dot-com giant.

While no doubt representing a healthy receptiveness to change, this particular decision comes across as regressive to some, with academics such as Professor Jennifer Glass, an expert on the US workforce at the University of Texas, criticizing its strictness as being more "in line with corporate America, not high-tech industries". Yahoo employees with young families are expected to be significantly affected by this change, among whom the flexibility of working arrangements is usually a major factor when deciding who to work for. To UK employers also, this new decision must seem baffling, moving as it is against the tides of workforce management. A recent survey for example found that the option of working from home is now offered by the majority British firms, increasing suddenly from a mere 13% as recently as 2006.

Taking a wider view of affairs, moving beyond the physical needs of individuals for whom the ability to work at home is a practical necessity (such as the disabled or those with newborn children), flexible working arrangements represent an important part of an increasingly personal approach to employment. Frans van der Reep, a Dutch professor, believes that in order to get the best from their workers in an increasingly competitive market, employers are discovering the need to radically alter their attitudes to human resource management. In place of colourless teams populated by people generalised by bland job descriptions for example, it is becoming important to take a more nuanced and granular approach to team-mates. While having direct relevance to skills and competencies - does a colleague speak a foreign language that is likely to be of use in an upcoming project, or does one person excel at a particular task? - needs, hopes and desires should certainly not be ignored in this process. In a 2010 paper detailing the application of new technology to the workplace, Frans explored the possibility of integrating intelligent social systems to enable a much more bottom-up approach to group management. According to the proposed method, tasks could be allocated periodically based on vastly varied parameters such as past performance, day-to-day requirements or even temporary changes to personal circumstances. This, it is hoped, would also simplify the process of micromanagement, allowing managers to dedicate their energies more long-term and complex goals, improving the health of the company as a whole.

A satisfied employee
While this paper certainly indulges in a high degree of speculation, it serves to show that something as simple as being given the option of working from home can be an important first step towards improving employee satisfaction. Genuine personal interest on the part of an employer ultimately permits the development of a meaningful relationship between a business and the individuals working within it, building an emotional attachment and dedication to success otherwise easily lost as a company grows in size. Rarely noted for its progressive attitudes (perhaps unfairly), the "mission command" approach of the British Army is an excellent example of how personal leadership, as opposed to the more remote concept of man-management, can be highly successful in practise. The command structure of the Army allows its higher-ranked commanders to set mission statements and general schemes of maneuver for their sub-commanders, who then develop increasingly more detailed strategies for those working under them and so on, with the finest details developed by those with the closest knowledge of their individual soldiers. As part and parcel of this, an experienced platoon commander is expected to know his men in and out, and will adjust his plans according to the needs and skills of each one of them. This fosters a tremendous amount of mutual loyalty and respect which contributes to the high level of team efficiency that is absolutely necessary when regularly faced with life or death situations.

It should follow that, while an awareness and accommodation of the needs of employees is a vital component of workplace efficiency, allowances such as working from home are best made on a case-by-case basis and are not always necessary. For a manager there can be no substitute for real leadership: while blanket bans on a particular working style, as proposed by Yahoo here, should be discouraged, a competent manager should be given the freedom to decide whether particular working arrangements are or are not appropriate. Office attendance has been linked to better promotion prospects, a more closely-knit team structure and the development of better communication between colleagues, while working from home has the potential to decrease perception of work performed, actually leading to longer self-inflicted hours on the same salary. In a dynamic start-up for instance, the benefits provided by an office atmosphere can be essential for providing the drive and creative instinct necessary for rapid growth. Although work in an environment filled with other people can provide numerous distractions for the plucky office-dweller, for many it can also assist focus and concentration. Developed as a tongue-in-cheek response to this for example, a web-based service named Coffitivity was recently created by lovers of a moderate amount of hustle and bustle. When activated, this app provides a small amount of background noise, apparently comparable to a busy coffee shop, for those struggling to find the optimum level of ambiance in their workplace of choice.

To speak from my own experience, a measure of balance has also been the most important feature of successful working arrangements. Often a quiet environment free from distractions and the freedom to allocate time as I choose has been an important part of the creative process, allowing a level of focus on a single task that is otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Nevertheless, most of my best work has been performed with an amount of collaboration, however small, to add a little perspective to an outlook that can too easily become sterile and unintelligible if developed entirely in isolation. As with most features and fads of the workplace therefore, moderation is needed. Today's managers must make themselves aware of the advantages of liberal working arrangements, while understanding that a huge shift in company policy is unlikely to have the desired effect unless accompanied by an in-depth and invested knowledge of employees among team leaders. Leadership and adaptability are increasingly the all-important variables of human resource management: without them, the chances of encountering another panacea are unlikely.

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