Originally published June 2013
Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, created a stir in the winter when she ordained an end to tele-working arrangements for her employees, demanding instead that all staff report to a corporate office. Her rationale: as an innovation-driven enterprise, she felt creativity is best inspired by real-time physicality of the sort that cannot easily be replicated virtually.
More recently, another prominent woman from Silicon Valley, Cheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, espoused the opposite view. While her widely cited book is not a rebuttal to Mayer (both women are friends and former colleagues of Google), Sandberg’s case for more gender equality in the workplace is premised in part on the need for more flexibility, and not less.
Sandberg, who also worked in government, borrows from General Colin Powell’s book on leadership and his lament of the organizational culture of “busy bastards” where staff feel compelled or required to be seen in the office for long hours, every day. For Sandberg and Powell, management and governance should be less about where and when employees work, and more about results and getting things done.
In such a world, differentiation matters more than standardization in terms of workplace design. Yet the evolution of truly mobile organizations has been slow, particularly in the public sector, stunted by the inertia of industrial era office complexes and a bureaucratic culture of process and control.
Despite Yahoo’s exception, tele-working has been growing more in industry than in government. According to the Telework Research Network, flexible arrangements grew by 61 percent between 2005 and 2009, for example, even as self employment during the same period grew by only 1.7 percent. During this timeframe, the private sector housed two thirds of all tele-workers.
Yet the arrival of President Obama signalled an important shift for the public sector. Coming into Office with a BlackBerry and labelling himself as “Tele-worker in Chief,” the Obama administration has aggressively promoted flexible work arrangements across the federal public service. A 2012 report by the United States Office of Personnel Management articulates the evolution of tele-working from an individual benefit and choice to a more strategic and collective value proposition for society as a whole.
Here in Canada, governments have begun to at least lay the groundwork for a similar evolution. At the federal level, Public Works and Government Services Canada has introduced Workplace 2.0, an initiative designed to reduce the size and usage of individual offices in favour of more common, modular and interactive workspaces. The government of British Columbia has similarly developed its own plan, WorkPoint, as an effort to “rethink how and where” provincial employees function and interact.
The B.C. plan, available online, quotes from an employee survey by Shared Services BC reporting that less than one half of respondents felt that the office is the place where they are most productive. With one quarter of B.C. public servants already using government-issued laptop or tablet computers, the case for nine to five office rigidity becomes ever-more dubious unless you subscribe to the view that your staff and colleagues cannot really be trusted to be working unless they are doing so when and where you are.
It is worth reflecting for a moment here on the many university graduates now excitedly embarking upon public service careers. Imagine the culture clash of standardized workdays after years or personifying the flexible and mobile workforce during their university studies.
Back in 2007 (before the iPhone and tablet computers), prominent management theorist Gary Hamel presented his criterion of the ideal worker for this century in the following manner: Passion 35%; Creativity 25%; Initiative 20%; Intellect 15%; Diligence 5%; Obedience 0%. Hamel added that while obedience may serve a purpose (since there are times when rules must be obeyed) it is rarely a source of value. Furthermore, Hamel’s diminished importance of intellect reflects an open and networked world where cognitive expertise is plentifully available. A 2011 report on the Future of Government by the World Economic Forum concurs with this viewpoint.
Yet fundamentally, the Westminster parlance continues to invoke the language of “government machinery and bureaucrats” and flexible work arrangements remain the exception rather than the norm. As Tanya Snook notes in her insightful online piece for CGE (“The biggest barrier to the modern workplace is us“), the comfort zone of traditionalism is a powerful vice. Shifting from a world of machinery to one of mobility denotes a transformation that remains at its inception.