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Proceed with caution when rolling back programs like work-from-home

Removing programs designed to foster openness can be tricky—even destructive.

by Dr. Philip A. Foster

Proceed with caution when rolling back programs like work-from-home
Image by : opensource.com

As an evangelist for open organizations and an ambassador for open principles, I am fully aware of the challenges organizations go through when they’re trying to effect lasting change. Changing deep-rooted organizational culture should not be taken lightly. It’s something people should weigh very carefully, debate fully, and then embrace wholly.

Once your organization “steps through the gate” and adopts an open mindset, reversing the flow of power that’s unleashed is difficult. Organizations that embrace openness shift their attention from costs to the value side of doing business. In other words, they begin seeing employees as assets capable of delivering value to the organization rather than as cost centers that must be strictly managed.

Because open organizations are built on trust, accountability, transparency, and empowerment, actually reversing course and creating closed environments can be detrimental to an organization’s long-term success. Certainly, in the short-run, we know that up-ending an open ecosystem diminishes morale, trust, and (even more so) productivity. As a result, organizations that tighten their workers’ freedoms ultimately lose market share—and their best employees.

Take, for instance, the 2013 case of Yahoo ending their work-from-home policy for more than 500 employees. Public fallout and ridicule from the decision was deafening. While the number of employees who ultimately left Yahoo as a result of the decision is a bit sketchy, we know that many were not very happy with the decision. We can also look toward noted remote-work pioneer IBM, who recently announced to more than 5,500 marketing employees that it was moving away from remote-work and had decided to “co-locate” its U.S. marketing department of about 2,600 people to one of six different locations: Boston, New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin, and San Francisco. This means that individuals who normally worked remotely or from another office must now move closer to one of the six offices—or resign. This move has many employees furious. They’re abandoning work on long-term projects and looking for others jobs.

No take-backs

In my book, The Open Organization, 2nd Edition, I write about leadership intervention within the confines of an open organization. We know that in the context of an open ecosystem when leadership intervenes in decisions made by their followers, they begin to erode the spirit of openness and thereby create anger and diminish trust. This is not to say that leadership intervention is unwarranted or should be avoided at all costs. This means that when a leader intervenes or holds veto over a group decision, that it should be done sparingly and the leaders must be prepared to fully explain the reason for their override. Leadership’s role in the context of an open system is protecting its First Principles and the governance models that define its openness.

When we “walk back” freedoms we give to people, we begin to break down the morale of the organization. This affects productivity and the overall happiness of the workers. As we have seen with IBM, many employees noted that they stopped focusing on long-term projects, as they were concerned with their job stability. When we remove these freedoms from our workers—when we’re clearly focused on costs rather than value—we end up creating an exodus.

We saw this happen when Zappos adopted holacracy. We watched it happen when Yahoo ended work-from-home and we are beginning to watch valuable and talented employees leave IBM.

Sending the wrong message

When we move an organization from the freedom of open to a more rigid, inflexible structure, we send the wrong message to our employees.

In the case of the work-from-home policies being taken away, we’re really communicating that we are not going to trust employees to do their work unless they’re located some place where we can monitor them. While I readily admit that working from home is not for everyone, for those who thrive in this environment, taking it away is tantamount to a demotion.

Fix what’s really broken

When I read about organizations that are walking back their work-from-home policies, I can’t help but think that it was their policies and not their people that were broken.

Stay the course. Fix real problems. Trust your employees to do the right thing.

While I understand that Yahoo and IBM are ending work-from-home policies in an effort to increase productivity, collaboration, and innovation, the resulting effect appears too frequently to be the opposite of what they set out to do. In the end, it is not the collaboration or even innovation that is broken. What we are really experiencing is an organization with ineffective processes and policies for remote work. Bringing employees back into the office will not fix the problems these organizations are experiencing. While there are many reasons why a work-from-home policy might fail, here are few of the more common ones:

Organizations fail to properly onboard individuals for remote work. Working from home is not for everyone. It requires focus, organization and technological skills among others. Organizations that properly onboard remote workers will make sure that the new hire understands the organization’s missions, vision, and processes. They communicate these often.

There is a lack of connectivity between the remote worker and the organization. Staying connected is extremely important. Communication should be conducted via video conferencing (face-to-face), and in person at on-site meetings. Companies offering work-from-home policies should remain purposeful in their desire to keep connected with their distributed workforce. Out of sight should not be out of mind.

Companies don’t properly and consistently instill their culture in their workforce. The organization must continually instill cultural values in their employees. They can do this by clearly articulating the company purpose, values, and mission.

Organizations do not give the employees the autonomy and empowerment they need to get their work done efficiently. This inhibits productivity and certainly gives the impression that the employees are goofing.

Proceed with caution

Organizations that are contemplating ending open organization programs (such as work-from-home, flexible hours, and others) should proceed with caution. The moment the organization empowers employees, they open a Pandora’s Box that’s difficult to close without damaging the fabric of the organization. Open ecosystems are extremely rewarding, and, when done right, are effective and innovative. Moving an organization to an open ecosystem is not to be taken lightly. For those that operate in an open modality, going backward is not always the right thing to do.

Stay the course. Fix real problems. Trust your employees to do the right thing.

This article originally published on OpenSource.com. Republished under Creative Commons License. 


cropped-img_0100-001Dr. Philip A. Foster is a Thought Leader focused on the Future of Work and the 21st Century Workplace. He is a prolific writer, International Lecturer and Best Selling Author of “The Open Organization” – now available on Amazon. He is an Ambassador to the OpenSource.com community and holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership with emphasis in Strategic Foresight from Regent University, Virginia. You can contact him at http://www.maximumchange.com

The Rise of the Remote Workforce

remote-workforce-360x260We live in an emerging globalized mobile world of dispersed cloud workers. More than ever we see individuals and organizations trading in their traditional offices to work from home, coffee houses and just about anywhere in the world in which they can connect to the Internet. Leading the 21st century dispersed workforce brings its own challenges and requires new attitudes, approaches, and technologies. It requires leadership that is willing to step out of the comfort of the corner office and explore rich new possibilities of workforce engagement. It requires a higher degree of understanding communication, culture, collaboration, and empowerment.

“We live in a time of unprecedented globalism. Businesses, people, and economies are tied together in ways we could not have imagined 40 years ago. Organizations must now compete within a global landscape where clients and even the workforce are culturally diverse and geographically dispersed. Organizations are networked and interlaced around the globe through the Internet and mobile technologies. Crossing and operating within cultural boundaries must­­­ become a skill of the leaders and followers of the future. Organizations of the future must become culturally literate if they are to successfully compete under these emerging paradigms.” – Philip A Foster, The Open Organization, 2014

As we witness the emergence of a globalized mobile world of dispersed cloud workers, more than ever we see individuals and organizations trading in the traditional offices for the coffee house office or what I like to call the Coffice. A cloud based workforce is nothing more than a distributed or remote employee who is not bound by geography, time zone, or national boundaries. These employees are connected to colleagues via technology and therefore are able to work more flexibly via the internet.

Leader flexibility is the key to creating an atmosphere where each employee can become more excited about where they work and more importantly what they are working on. As the world becomes more globalized, the need for a flexible cloud optimized workforce is more evident. With a remote workforce comes the need to re-imagine and retool leadership for the remote worker. What is certain is that the way we approach and engage leaders and followers is quickly changing. There are challenges ahead as we assimilate into the new realities of a distributed cloud based workforce. Leading the charge for change is and will continue to be our Millennials. By the year 2025, it is estimated that nearly 75% of all work will be held by this generation. What is certain – change will happen whether we embrace it or not. As the 21st century organization continues to seek greater flexibility, organizational leadership must also evolve to the pressures and realities of a globalized economy.

While traditional leadership relies on formality, power, and proximity to followers; the Organization of the 21st century is emerging as a nontraditional structure in which authority is not vested in positions and human capital is dispersed geographically. Organizations will begin to abandon traditional leadership pedagogue for leaderless, self-led, and an empowered autonomous workforce. As hierarchies begin to collapse, leaders must learn to adapt to new realities and what it means to lead a more culturally diverse dispersed workforce from a distance.

As our reality shifts, leaders must learn how to communicate more effectively; engage human capital differently; embrace cultural nuances with diplomatic precision; and empower employees. The shift toward a dispersed workforce requires confidence and an abandonment of old models of employee engagement. The new way of working is not for everyone.  These changes will require discernment in the on-boarding process. Because Communication is so different in the dispersed setting, employees must leave ego behind and walk with assurance that they questions are important enough to ask.

Things are shifting – organizations are changing. Engagement of employees will change. We can either prepare for the inevitable or bury our heads in the depths of a 19th century hierarchical structure. In the end, you can change or you can become irrelevant. The choice is up to you.

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 Dr. Philip A. Foster is considered a Thought Leader in Business Operations, Organization and Strategic Leadership. He is a prolific writer, International Lecturer and Best Selling Author of “The Open Organization” – now available through Ashgate Publishing. Philip is certified in both Leadership and coaching. He is the Founder and CEO of Maximum Change Consulting, serving clients from around the world. He holds a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership with emphasis in Strategic Foresight and a Master of Art in Organizational Leadership, both from Regent University, Virginia.

Twitter: @maximumchange, E-mail: philip@maximumchange.com.