Offering employees the option to work flexibly has long been lauded as the answer to many organisational woes – from encouraging diversity through offering work-life balance, to saving money on facilities costs, to accessing a global talent pool; often at a fraction of the cost of local salaries. However, in recent times a number of large organisations, including Yahoo! and Best Buy, have turned the tables on their flexible work policies completely, peeling back whatever flexible options they were offering and forcing employees back into this office.  What has caused this sudden change of heart? Will there be consequences for these organisations? And finally – what does the evidence say? Is flexible working really on the out?

Why the sudden change of heart?

Given that the many benefits of flexible working are extremely well documented, it is indeed surprising that reputable organisations are choosing to suddenly repeal the privilege.  However, it appears that both Best Buy, and Yahoo!, did so with good reason.  When cancelling their ROWE (Results Only Work Environment Program – which gave most employees the right to permanently telecommute if they wished), Best Buy claimed that:

In the context of a business transformation, it makes sense to not only consider what the results are, but how the work is getting done.’  

Although not said in as many words, it appeared that there may have been some deep trust issues between  Best Buy management and telecommuting employees that ultimately led to the cancellation of the program.

Yahoo!, however, were more explicit in their reasoning for cancelling their flexible work policy.  In a memo sent to all staff, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Myer exclaimed:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.’

At the centre of Yahoo!’s change of heart, then, was a desire for greater collaboration, and the benefits it can bring.  And from the looks of it, Yahoo! might have been onto something – leading social researcher Claire Madden recently pointed out, in her compelling TedX talk, that the future of the workplace lies not in technology, but in fostering better human connections to create what she describes as a ‘culture of collaborative innovation.’

Is there a middle ground?

So should we, or shouldn’t work, work flexibly? The answer may be in finding a middle ground, and meeting some important prerequisites.

Best Buy’s issues, for example, could easily be solved by rebuilding a culture of trust between management and employees.  And in fact, trust is an important precondition for flexible work – managers of remote employees need to trust they are delivering what they have promised.

Solving Yahoo’s issues, however, is slightly more complicated.  There is no denying the fact that collaboration is the key to innovation, and that this is best achieved through face-to-face interactions.  Therefore, inevitably, some – but not all – of an employee’s working hours should be spent in the office, collaborating with others.  Outside of those hours, however, employees should make better use of collaboration-fostering technology, such as social media, or this mLearning platform by Teazl.  Who is to say that the great idea that was fashioned during a hallway conversation, couldn’t also have been generated via Twitter?

As was demonstrated by the vitriolic backlash levelled at Yahoo! after their decision to can flexible work was announced, cancelling flexible working is definitely not the answer.  Organisations need to learn to strike the right balance between flexible working and office-time, and need to better utilise technology to foster the collaboration that they need.

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