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The recent decision by Marissa Mayer to abolish telecommuting at Yahoo has sparked a firestorm of criticism and debate in social media platforms and executive suites, and put a spotlight on the increasingly accepted practice of virtual work. You can review a good summary of the polemic here. Certainly, at first glance the policy change seems to go against prevailing workplace trends and HR logic – where maximized work-life balance fosters more happy, productive employees. Telecommuting is a growing trend and seems a boon to both employees and companies alike (statistics I’ve seen suggest productivity increases with flexible work arrangements.)
This response – from none other than Richard Branson – is fairly typical of the strong negative reactions to the Yahoo move, which suggest the blunt directive is anachronistic and short-sighted. Some of the criticisms have even questioned Mayer’s feminist bona-fides – such as Maureen Dowd’s column suggesting Mayer’s gilded work arrangement may be clouding her understanding of the needs of other working women. It should be noted not all the comments were negative. Several like this one featured Yahoo insiders who praised the move, suggesting there were too many slackers taking advantage of the loose workplace rules. Other commentators argued that the company’s growth and survival trumps any workplace conveniences.
One of the realities that I found missing in some of the comments is that in all flexible workplaces – in particular those promoting working from home – there’s always been an implied, or formal contract, featuring one or all of the following requirements:
- There’s no blanket policy – Each job/role should be evaluated if and how it lends itself to telecommuting, and in many cases senior leaders or group leaders understand their roles preclude being based off-site for extended periods of time.
- Productivity trumps convenience – If a case can be made the efficiency and output of employees is suffering due to telecommuting, then the policy should be revisited.
- It’s not all of nothing – Most people I’ve worked with over the years operated in a blended routine that includes both virtual work (from the home or other outposts) and occasional face-to-face interaction, such as quarterly meetings or special retreats.
- Circumstances change…and so may your job – Employees must recognize that workplace policies are fluid and can (and must) change to ensure they remain viable and relevant in the context of the company’s evolving performance and objectives. The fact that telecommuting is a policy now is not a guarantee or excuse for keeping it in perpetuity.
In defense of Yahoo’s blanket ban on working from home, many of the negative comments seem to conveniently ignore the company is on a steady downhill towards irrelevance and possible oblivion. Yahoo’s leaders made a strong case that business as usual wasn’t working and dramatic change was required not just to boost productivity, but also collaboration and innovation – both of which benefit greatly from sustained in-person interaction. Furthermore, company leaders are leaving the door open to further adjustments, saying this is the right solution for right now.
As I thought further about this issue, however, I looked at my own situation, where work with global partners via Skype or other interactive platforms is the norm, and productivity rarely seems compromised by the lack of face-to-face interaction. In fact, the inherent flexibility of a virtual team has often been a boon to our performance – with more than one Skype call featuring folks at the breakfast table or quietly baby-sitting their children. Is it helpful to have in-person meetings on occasion? Certainly. But does that prelude a balanced model where virtual work is allowed for more routine work and collaboration. It should not.
In the final analysis, I believe Mayer could have taken a more nuanced, incremental approach, starting with a more disciplined policy and closer monitoring to weed out the worst abusers, but she likely felt that lacked the urgency the dire situation required. Ultimately, I think her blunt approach will backfire – if she doesn’t retreat from the decision altogether. (They left the door open for future changes in the policy, so this is perhaps the most likely outcome.) The unintentional message it sends to employees and prospects is that they can’t be trusted and don’t merit the same flexibility and options that are given to most other technology companies – particularly those based in Silicon Valley. After all, though productivity is certainly paramount it cannot be achieved without employee engagement and goodwill. Given this context, Mayer may win the immediate battle for innovation, but lose the longer war for talent.
Over the years, I’ve had many clients and peers ask me about the best strategy for true, lasting employee engagement…the holy grail of internal communications. Like many, I’d tell them about the importance of two-way communication, robust workplace programs, strong leadership and a vibrant culture. But often I’d also relay my “Amazon” story – which was based on my short but formative consulting stint with the internet giant when it was still a brash start-up.
My Amazon story was about the incredible energy, drive and productivity of their Seattle team despite tough odds, persistent criticism from pundits and brutal, round-the-clock working conditions (this was not a place to ask about office hours.) Sure these guys worked in a funky renovated hospital and defined the casual workplace, but they worked incredibly hard and seemed driven by a greater cause, a belief they were inventing a new business and creating a better customer experience. In hindsight, there were right, and they continue to blaze a path in the evolving world of internet commerce.
The lasting lesson for me – and the point of telling my story to clients – is that doing all the right things is usually not enough to get employees to operate at the highest level, and that the most successful companies are the ones where employees believe their work has higher meaning beyond the obvious imperatives – fill a customer need, sell services or products, make money and please investors. All of us want to do something that really matters, or at least appears to be useful, relevant and timely.
As it happens, I’ve had the opportunity to put this theory in practice in a recent client engagement. This company was in the midst of a classic “transformation” exercise designed to improve efficiency and profits. In short, they needed a major reboot. After months of relying largely on logical arguments and data – the usual practical, empirical rationale for change and list of potential benefits – we started to focus more on the meaning of the company and its unique heritage. Luckily for us, this client was a legitimate pioneer in its industry (helicopter services) and had a very compelling, unique story to tell about getting customers to/from the most remote places on earth safely and on time. In short, this company was cool, did something very special – even dramatic – and had a lineage going back to the creation of helicopter flight. Not surprisingly, this storyline – translated into various media and injected into the brand identity – has resonated much more than the balance sheets and market studies that were initially the focus.
I’m glad to say the smart folks at McKinsey have landed on the same conclusion. This recent article makes a compelling case for why this quest for meaning is critical for tangible and lasting employee engagement. The article acknowledges one of the challenges inherent in this aspiration– some companies will naturally have an easier time identifying and promoting their distinctive pixie dust; either because they are pioneers, uber-cool, game-changers, or have an obvious altruistic bent that fuels that sense of “meaning”. Think Google, Kiva, Facebook, Body Shop or Apple. Much tougher to imagine, and implement, if you work for a company that produces ball-bearings or book shelves.
But the McKinsey folks argue there are strategic steps and tactical tools that can allow even the most mundane, uncool business to foster a sense of meaning among their employees. I particularly like their concept of holistic storytelling, which suggests companies go beyond the typical turnaround or “good to great” narrative – which is inherently focused on company benefits – to encompass other impacts:
Our research shows that four other sources give individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on:
- society—for example, making a better society, building the community, or stewarding resources
- the customer—for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
- the working team—for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
- themselves—examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment
Ideas like this can provide communication professionals with additional justification, and potential approaches, to foster engagement that comes from deep employee alignment and commitment. When employees are in the zone, as McKinsey says, there is nothing they can’t achieve. It’s our job to help them do that.
In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.
As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.
On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.
With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:
- Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
- Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
- Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
- Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
- Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
- Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
- Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
- Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.
A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News provides a fascinating window into how Facebook educates its rapidly expanding global workforce about the company’s celebrated culture. According to the article, Facebook uses a very high-touch strategy led by “landing teams” of trained HQ staff who parachute into new offices for assignments, which often last at least one year. Their mission: to carry and recreate the distinctive Facebook cultural DNA to the new troops. The landing team use a range of activities and tools to tell their story – including the Facebook “hackathon” event, which is designed to demonstrate the value of risk-taking and collaboration and spread some of that start-up pixie dust. Even the office set up is designed to replicate the look and feel of headquarters. Part of the team’s role includes recruiting new staff. During their assignments these ambassadors are expected to do their regular jobs. That’s an impressive commitment, and a good formula to get the best ambassadors.
This story is interesting on many fronts, not the least of which is the priority placed on ensuring new staff understand and embrace the company’s identity and values across diverse global locations. But perhaps the most important lesson here is the focus on sustained, face-to-face teaching – or call it mentoring. Culture has always been a strange animal for organizations, with the orientation and education work typically shared across a motley mix of teams (notably HR, marketing and internal communications). Often orientation is packaged as one-day firehose of materials and briefings – ranging from legal requirements to cafeteria menus – with culture delegated to some seminal historical documents and reinforced by vague, trite collateral in the facilities. The missing ingredient is often the hallway conversations – usually informal but sometimes led by assigned mentors – that carries the real stories, and implicit norms, that are true representations of the company culture.
The Facebook approach works well on several levels:
- It focuses on the real culture that staff already live and breathe, not some boardroom aspiration or stale bullet points in an elevator;
- It uses committed, passionate workers who have a range of jobs, not “trained staff” from support departments who are more likely to use canned materials and messages;
- It suggests that conveying information on topics like values and mores involves as much show as tell, and more emotion than fact;
- It rightfully assumes that teaching new staff about culture – and making sure they understand and embrace the values and norms – is not a one-shot deal, but a long-term commitment; and,
- It recognizes that even in dynamic, innovative global companies like Facebook a shared, coherent cultural experience is important to workplace morale and productivity.
I’ll admit that the Facebook approach may not work for all organizations – who after all have their own distinctive DNA – but it’s worth asking whether more traditional approaches work anymore.