Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has recently announced that she wants all her staff to stop working remotely and come back in to the office. Employees have to make arrangements for home, childcare or elderly care and return to Headquarters by June, which could cause a logistical nightmare in making adequate alternative arrangements.
Ms Mayer’s argument for this is that people work more effectively when face to face and able to share ideas at the coffee machine. She has a point that it is certainly important for staff to retain a sense of ‘belonging’ to a particular organisation. It is also necessary for people to network and know the latest projects, goals and priorities that need attention.
However, this does seem to me a backward step when so many organisations are successfully operating with staff working flexibly. It will involve people in unnecessary commuting – resulting in crowded public transport and more pollution on the roads: not good for the planet. It can also add to stress levels, as individuals worry about caring arrangements for children, disabled relatives or parents. These concerns can interfere with the ability to be fully mentally present on the job. Pressure can impair creative thinking when the body’s fight-flight response shunts energy to muscle rather than higher thinking processes.Sustained stress can also impair the functioning of the immune system and potentially lead to illness.
I have been running creative thinking workshops for some twenty years and have almost never met a person who says that they get their best ideas in the office or at their desk. The majority report that they get creative solutions when walking the dog, stopping to reflect, or watching a sunset. The average business meeting is frequently unproductive in terms of innovative problem solving as those who are either at the top of the hierarchy or simply extrovert tend to dominate proceedings. Those who are introvert, young and new to the business, will seldom be given the opportunity to express their opinions unless the manager or team leader is expert in the art of facilitation. Groupthink is therefore the all-too-frequent result.
Managers often prefer to ‘see’ their direct reports. This way they know what they are doing and have more control over precisely how people spend their time. But this can be limiting for the individuals they manage. Flexible working allows a sense of personal autonomy over how time is spent, enabling a person to work hard at the best time of day for their own personal working style. It enables people to manage ‘life’ – take time to pick up children from school, or take a sick parent to the hospital – and not feel ‘watched’ or pulled in too many directions at once. They are then able to focus on work in the periods when they are undisturbed. A focus on outcomes allows a more adult-to-adult transaction rather than the manager-as-controlling-authority-figure, which can disempower the individuals under them, like children.
Flexible working does not mean ‘skiving’. My father employed several part-time and flexible workers and often told me that they did as much if not more than those working full time. In my experience people often tend to work even longer hours when working from home. Receiving the trust of a manager tends to result in gratitude and loyalty. And it is certainly not a gender issue, as both men and women, senior and junior, report benefits in terms of performance, well-being and work-life balance through taking responsibility for their own time management and productivity. The key is to move from the black and white thought that it is an either/or. Certainly staff need to come into an organisation and meet face to face from time to time but, equally, working remotely and flexibly alleviates stress and fatigue, both of which negatively influence thinking and performance. A leader who treats each case individually will, I believe, reap rewards.
Helen Whitten is an Accredited Coach with the Association for Coaching and author of Cognitive-Behavioural Coaching Techniques for Dummies. Helen was Deputy Chair of the Work-Life Balance Trust.