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Total Recall – Back to the Office at Yahoo!

The role of the "human moment" in business performance takes center stage. Photo credit: Gensler

Work in the office… or Quit.

Yahoo has it backwards..

Mayer’s memo was childish

Those were just some of the headlines from around the globe reacting to the decision by Yahoo! to recall its work-from-home workforce back to the office, an issue I recently spoke about on Metro Morning on CBC One. Unfortunately much of the coverage thus far has criticized Yahoo! for what many pundits view as a step backwards in the realm of flexible work environments.

The reasoning for the search engine giant’s decision? Face-to-face interactions are important for relationships, experience, and the company as a whole. That concept, while seemingly archaic, holds a lot of merit. Yahoo is looking to rebuild and gain back a competitive advantage, one they have lost in recent years and one that the new CEO has been eager to regain. So I think that Yahoo! has taken a progressive step forward in understanding that the programs that were put in place years ago weren’t necessarily working in favour of what they as an organization are now looking to accomplish.

A quick trip to Yahoo!’s website talks about the culture at the organization and identifies the benefits of their workplace and the amenities it offers: hair salons, car services, games rooms, back up day care, health clubs and massages, dentists, and dry-cleaning. It also identifies a list of what’s not offered. Among those lie the implication of complacency, entitlement, and fixed ideas on anything.

All too often organizations put into place flexible programs for their employees without understanding who is responsible to track participation. Middle management is then charged with policing a program that they likely didn’t have a say in, reprimanding employees for not following protocol and myriad other responsibilities that could detract from their own performance in their role. Many times the “out of sight out of mind” philosophy comes into play, and it’s not so much from an inability to manage a virtual team but from a lack of proper communication, training and tools to manage a virtual team effectively.

There has been a shift in attitudes of late about bringing workers back into the workplace. This line of thought holds that the workplace is the best place for the exchange of ideas and collaboration and in each case an organization may have different and valid reasons for keeping workers in the office. One of the driving forces in the past for implementing a flexible work policy was to reduce real estate costs. While this still holds merit for some larger organizations that were gluttonous in their acquisition of space, proper and efficient design solutions can pare down on space requirements without impacting employees. As a matter of fact, a great workplace design and the supporting technology infrastructure can bring employees back and give them a renewed perception of the organization.

We are able to hazard a guess as to why remote workers are being recalled. But reading between the lines about Yahoo!’s decisions only suggests possibilities, not facts. For various media to jump to conclusions and quote those from working mom organizations, universities, and head hunters who believe that this will detract from the move to flexibility, is somewhat irresponsible. To say that this decision will send a dangerous message to the business community about the benefits and opportunities of teleworking is to not look at the reasons why Yahoo implemented it in the first place, or the reasons why they are now adopting a different attitude.

Technology company or not, Yahoo! still has a workforce tasked with specific functions, and they now have been asked to perform them in a workplace that was designed for flexibility, collaboration and team building. There are many ways to define flexibility or a flexible work environment – mobility and teleworking are one way, exquisitely fluid design and thoughtful planning of space and amenities are others. Understanding the corporate goals and objectives is paramount in developing and subsequently adopting the flexible environment that is right for the organization.

Andrea Wolf-Strike is a workplace strategist in Gensler's Consulting practice. She uses her experience as a former commercial real estate agent and member of a Fortune 500 CRE department to balance the practical and strategic application of workplace design principles. Contact her at Andrea_Wolf-Strike@gensler.com.

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