When I read last Friday that the CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, was implementing a ban on Yahoo! employees from working at home, I confess I was staggered by the apparent absurdity of it. After all, Yahoo!’s business model is predicated on facilitating virtual relationships, rather than those based on physical presence, aiming to “keep people connected to what matters most to them, across devices and around the globe”.
Yahoo!’s decision comes at a time when the Australian government has committed to a target of 12% of Commonwealth public servants working from home (teleworking or telecommuting) by 2020, and the leader of the opposition is promoting a greater role for online learning in our universities, presumably to take further advantage of the National Broadband Network. Yahoo!, it seems, wants to support these kinds of efforts—to keep us connected—but by taking the “tele” out of “telecommuting” in the process.
The decision has sparked quite an outpouring of criticism via our key 21st century communication medium: the Internet. On the one hand, Forbes considers the decision symptomatic of a failure of leadership, while Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, is more concerned about Ms Mayer’s “less-privileged sisters with young children [for whom] telecommuting is a lifeline to a manageable life”. Others have argued that the jury is out, and there is plenty of evidence to support either position.
Writing in November last year about whether telework is for everyone, I discussed some of its pros and cons: increased productivity, improved employee well-being, and better green outcomes for the community on the one hand, but more complex coordination challenges, missed development and promotion opportunities, and feelings of isolation from the community on the other. These have been variously rehearsed in the more recent exchanges of views about teleworking, and so I won’t replay them here. Instead, I want to focus on a more general point that the move seems to suggest – the return of a “command and control” approach to employees and their performance, ostensibly to improve productivity and, thereby, the return on shareholders’ funds.
Throughout the 20th century, we were witness to the “evolution” of people management, as the efficiency focus of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management gave way to the human relations movement and, later, the importance of organisational culture and employee relations.
More recently though, with the effects of the GFC reflected in demands for increased productivity and increased job insecurity at all levels, it seems that the notion of “management by walking/wandering around” has been replaced by one of “management by pushing around”, as organisations turn from people management strategies informed by Douglas McGregor’s participative Theory Y to the more authoritarian Theory X. It is not coincidental that, at the same time, we have been witness to significant increases in claims of bullying in the workplace and levels of reported work-related stress.
Samuel Johnson once described patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. In the face of a diminished capacity to retain and motivate employees by throwing money at them (because this is, of course, their primary driver, at least when one’s thinking is informed by Theory X assumptions) and an apparent inability to create a positive company culture, through effectively recognising and rewarding employees (by drawing on intra-and inter-personal skills to encourage, praise and lead by a “no blame” example), Theory X may well be the last refuge of the manager now managing by pushing around.
And so we hear the following kinds of statements from CEOs and their senior executives, together with the unintended accompanying messages: “I have to have staff nearby so I can motivate them” (sotto voce: they goof off when I can’t see them); “We have to centralise to increase specialisation and therefore efficiency” (geographically dispersed staff can’t be trusted to do our work in a timely and proper manner);“We’re bringing people together to improve collaboration” (if we don’t have you physically present with each other, you’re not smart enough to come up with clever ways of virtual collaboration).
In this era of KPIs and performance-driven manager remuneration, the assumptions of McGregor’s Theory X provide managers with a convenient explanation for failing to meet deadlines, meet revenue projections or implement strategic initiatives – we haven’t got the right structures in place to take account of the inherent inadequacies of our human resources; we need to centralise and have people working in physical proximity to increase their productivity and teamwork.
An interesting footnote is that, at the same time it is stopping its employees from teleworking, Yahoo! has also stopped referring to itself as a “digital media company”, now describing itself as a “global technology company” instead. Perhaps it is easier to avoid the “Do as I say ….” tag when your business is about technology and not the medium it supports.