To Yahoo, Best Buy, et al: “It’s All About the Skills, Not the Location!”

© endostock - Fotolia.com
© endostock - Fotolia.com

Just when the dust was settling on Yahoo, along came Best Buy.

Another endangered company with a new CEO was pleading for “All Hands on Deck!” as it abolished its ROWE (Results-Oriented Work Environment) version of flexible work.

Yahoo and Best Buy each argued that collaboration was best done in the office.

According to the Yahoo HR memo:

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. …”

Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman told the Minneapolis StarTribune:

It makes sense to consider not just what the results are, but how the work gets done. Bottom line, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

Hundreds of critics shot back with anecdotes, boatloads of statistics, and strong assertions that offsite work was more productive, especially when it was buoyed (ironically) by the collaboration tools supplied by the likes of Best Buy and Yahoo. Collaborating at a distance, the critics argued, was the wave of the future and telecommuters didn’t need an office or huddles around the water cooler to “help the business.”

Does closeness create collaboration?

At the heart of this intense discussion about the effectiveness of offsite vs. onsite work is a dangerous assumption: we know how to collaborate, but are divided about where it’s done best. I doubt that Yahoo, Best Buy or most of us know how to collaborate very well or with predictable value – wherever we are.

I have a lot of experience with remote work: eight (8) years as the first inter-city remote in a demanding consulting firm (in primitive 1992 we exchanged documents by FedEx!); 12 years managing my all-remote firm; and 25 years consulting on workplace flexibility to large companies (although not Yahoo or Best Buy.)

Clarifying, accomplishing and assessing outcomes and deliverables may be done unevenly, but it can be done – and taught. Working without interruption or through longer days or weeks can increase productivity. And of course, the personal benefits of offsite work are matched these days only by growing real estate savings.

Collaboration comes from skills, not water coolers

When it comes to collaboration, innovation and the sustained sessions that can spawn and sustain them, “all hands on deck” can, at its worst, look like a demolition derby. Collaboration requires productive interactions. Underdeveloped interactive skills play a far more important role when you are trying to question, reinvent or save a faltering company or product line. True and useful collaboration demands a distinct skill set – what I call the Mutual Respect skills.

Suspending assumptions, actually listening, taking risks, giving strong feedback, challenging authority, resolving conflicts along the way – these are not easy things to do on the phone or in the conference room. And they are not made easier when the business is stressed, jobs are insecure and the environment is hostile.

But this is the situation in which Yahoo’s and Best Buy’s vaunted collaboration is to occur.

The Mutual Respect or a comparable set of collaborative skills can be taught. But in my experience, American culture and American business undervalue and under-teach them. Working offsite or in challenging times argues for highlighting and deepening these skills. Far too often, we do the opposite.

Cutting corners or committing to collaboration?

The recent stampede to full-time remote work as an office space/cost reduction strategy is a case in point.

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I recall a conversation a decade ago with a large, early adopter tech client about training for their soon-to-be-remote managers and employees. Suggesting that interactive skills training might be in order, I was told: “You misunderstand. This is a cost reduction strategy, not a cost incurring strategy. There’s no budget for frills like soft skills training.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The conversation ignited by Yahoo has focused largely on one form of flexibility: telecommuting for mostly exempt staff.

But collaboration is essential for all forms of flexibility with all categories of employees. My firm spent several years introducing flexible work for more than a thousand unionized RNs into a dozen New York hospitals.

This proved to be a crash course in collaboration. These competent, hard-working bedside nurses were hardly candidates for telecommuting. But they could achieve desirable control over their schedules by having schedule control delegated from Nurse Managers through what came to be called Team Self-Scheduling. Conflict resolution and high-impact communication skills were vital to make this work.

Sometimes, location doesn’t really matter

In our live training of more than a thousand RNs and Nurse Managers, we asked if any had received targeted training in conflict resolution at some point in their education or service. In these extraordinarily diverse, highly stressed hospitals in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, only two people recalled such training! One assumes – or at least hopes — that resource-rich companies do a better job.

The good news is that the training occurred, the desired collaborative behaviors emerged, and the flexible design worked.

The skills are not acquired by osmosis or by wishing for them. They can be taught if leaders recognize that they are needed and both managers and employees acquire them. Under these conditions location can matter less or perhaps not at all.

Without such skills, water cooler chat, hallway encounters or online tools may lead to interaction. Just don’t count on them to create the collaboration that turns a business around or sustains its creative growth.

Paul Rupert has collaborated with colleagues, clients and business leaders to embed flexibility in the workplace for the past 40 years. His consulting firm, Washington, DC-based Rupert & Company, has provided dozens of major employers with innovative strategies, training and online tools to build the flexibility the market will bear. Paul has played a leading role in developing flexibility systems in companies ranging from Aetna and AOL to Wal-Mart and Xerox, and is the architect of the Co Scheduling approach. Contact him at paulrupertdc@cs.com.

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8 Comments on “To Yahoo, Best Buy, et al: “It’s All About the Skills, Not the Location!”

  1. Perhaps you have completely missed the point. Authors all over the landscape are bemoaning the loss of a gen Y perk and blaming two really brilliant CEO’s for daring to make executive decisions. Here’s another perspective. What if both these CEO’s realized that they needed to reduce head count and realized that if people quit, the company does not have to pay severance and the company avoids the media scrutiny when they comply with the WARN ACT and make a public announcement about layoffs. Another brilliant benefit of this approach is that Yahoo and Best Buy also avoid the 60 pay penalty for each lay off.

    Seems to me that when you take out the emotion, the CEO’s have it over the whiners.

    1. Jim, my emphasis on skills is the interactive, not the technical variety. A core problem I see in the large and complex organiztions I work with is that they seek teamwork, collaboration, etc. but they practice and teach these things less than they should. Many executives have reduced headcount through deception. But one of our core skills for collaboration is trying to suspend, rather than nurture assumptions. Neither I — nor any of the other writers who have assumed what Yahoo or Best Buy is doing or is going to do — can know these facts. One fact I do know from decades of workplace experience is that deception does not foster collaboration.

      1. We’ll have to wait and see and we will never know whether there was any deception. The proof will be in the turnover numbers and next years stock price.

        I on the other hand, also with decades of experience believe the team concept is way overrated. HR folks love that term, but when confronted with the facts that all teams have a coach/manager and they usually don’t stop to take a vote when they make a decision the “TEAM” theme doesn’t hold up. Of course there are examples of companies who make it work, but I suspect there’s a strong leader somewhere and that’s why it works. Mostly the TEAM approach gives the members a warm and fuzzy, in the end however someone is making the decisions, team opinions notwithstanding.

      2. I was just wondering whether the leaders are smarter than we think. If indeed their motivation had an agenda, we’ll never know so the deception label will never be an issue. I stick with my belief that if either or both of these companies improve, the work from home issue will turn out to be just an issue for those on the sidelines.

  2. Good thoughts. I’m of the view these decisions are ignoring the real issues: http://tolerosolutions.com/best-buy-says-goodbye-as-another-work-from-home-program-bites-the-dust . I would add, collaboration comes from the type of culture created. If you have a trusting and high performing culture where people are all committed to the same vision, strategy and goals, then location is less important for collaboration ..they will want to find ways to work together for both personal and organizational success.

    1. Scott, Where exactly is the “trusting and high performing culture where people are all committed to the same vision, strategy and goals” company located and what’s its name? I suspect that the vast majority of companies and human nature in general will require strong leadership for a few more generations.

  3. All of those “water cooler” talks and hallway collaboration are nothing more than office politics and gossip sessions, which are a huge hindrance to productivity and efficiency and even company cohesion.

    It is usually the employees AT the office who resent those who telecommute who push the bogus ideas of “all hands on deck” makes Jack a better company.

    When the company has a more global mindset and everyone is “taught” how to work – telecommuting works wonderfully and saves companies big bucks.

    Skills, training and tools can make anything happen and happen well.

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