A couple of weeks ago, when Marissa Mayer announced that Yahoo employees would no longer be working from home, it created a firestorm of comment about whether or not it was a good idea. I’m sure she has her reasons, but this morning I came across something in the Huffington Post written by Tony Schwartz, President of the Energy Project and author of Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live, that hits the nail on the head regarding what it takes to create an environment where employees are motivated and engaged.
“Here’s the problem,” says Schwartz. “Employees who want to game the system are going to do so inside or outside the office. Supervising them more closely is costly, enervating, and it’s ultimately a losing game. As for highly motivated employees who’ve been working from home, all they’re likely to feel about being called back to the office is resentful—and more inclined to look for new jobs.”
I agree that this doesn’t seem like a winnable situation for Mayer. Granted, she’ll likely discover some of those employees who were “gaming the system,” but she’ll also lose some great talent that just happens to be very productive working from a home office. Schwartz suggests, “As an employer, I stay focused on one primary question about each employee: What is going to free, fuel, and inspire this person to bring the best of him or herself to work every day, most sustainably? My goal is to meet those needs in the best ways I can, without undue expense to others.”
It sounds to me like Schwartz looks at each employee individually—”I stay focused on one primary question about each employee.” I’m inferring from this that he doesn’t look at productivity from the perspective of the group as a whole, but looks at everyone as an individual contributor to the group’s productivity. I think this is a good idea.
I think this is good advice whether you’re working with knowledge workers or factory workers. We need to create working environments where people have the best opportunity to be successful at what they do while working productively. For some that might be working from home, for others it likely isn’t. Slackers are going to be slackers whether or not they are in the office.
Years ago I was the Creative Director in a small advertising agency. I was working with primarily younger professionals fresh from their education. It didn’t take long to notice that even something as simple as how I distributed work among the team could positively or negatively impact their productivity. On person was overwhelmed if he saw everything on the calendar. At the same time if he only had one item on his plate, he felt like he had all the time in the world to polish and would take forever. I eventually learned that if I gave him his current project and the next project he was incredible. I could trust him to be productive. When he was unproductive, it was usually my fault. I could slow him down by overwhelming him with too much to do all at once.
I had another member of the team who was most productive when she saw everything that was upcoming. I completely trusted her to perform at her best. To keep everyone productive, I had to adjust how work assignments were made based upon what was best for the individual.
“It gets back to trust,” says Schwartz. “Give it, and you get it back. In over a decade, no employee has ever chosen to leave our company. The better you meet people’s needs, the better they’ll meet you.”