In the Office does not mean In Control

Steve Pruneau

Collaboration does not justify requiring everyone to report to the office 100% of the time. I suggest the hidden reason is the traditional management myth that having everyone report to the office means there is control over the work that gets done. It’s sort of a guard mentality that assumes the manager’s job is to keep employees in line and check their activities.

For anyone nostalgic for traditional work life from the 1950s, much of American corporate culture is still stuck there. Case in point: Yahoo’s recent change in policy that requires every employee to report an office for work, every day. The reason given is collaboration, which I agree is valid.

Collaboration is still best when everyone is in the same room engaging in a free exchange of ideas aimed at solving problems or inventing new solutions. BUT, nothing will get done if we collaborate 100% of the time. There needs to be some period of time when we go back to our work space and do our part, ALONE. I cannot document the idea, draft the concept, build a prototype, change my procedure if my time is continuously occupied by conversation and exchange. So the actual balance is somewhere around 20% – 40% collaboration (design and planning) and 60% – 80% work. For people in leadership roles, that mix may be around 60% – 80% collaboration and 20% – 40% individual work (reviewing, approving, planning, writing notes for speeches and presentations).

Most of corporate America operates on the basis of pay in exchange for time given to the company (that’s the arrangement, whether hourly or salaried). Requiring everyone to report to the office (so managers can watch over them) ensures you will pay for time, pay for employees to be present, but not necessarily productivity or results. The only thing we ensure by requiring everyone to report to the office is we will create a workforce of clock watchers who put in the time, and this includes salaried employees.

So how do we fix it? The burden is not on me the slacker, devious clock-watching employee. The burden is on management to engage their teams in ways that ensure productivity without direct supervision. When I see an announcement from Yahoo that says everyone must work in the office 100% of the time, it tells me the management model is deeply flawed (as it is in most traditional corporations). It tells me there is no clear measure of results oriented job performance.

Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about your relationship with an attorney or an accountant. Do you require your outside attorney or accountant to perform work in your office or some other place that you choose? Of course not. Absurd. So what’s the difference between an in-house attorney or accountant who are employees, and an outside attorney or accountant whom you have engaged?

The difference is, the outside attorney or accountant is engaged for specific tasks, specific objectives. If you have specific tasks and objectives for each employee, each team, then they do not need supervision.

You say, “Steve, are you telling me I need to engage every employee and every team with specific tasks and objectives? That’s too much work!” It does take effort to change the way we manage work, to go from pay for time to always maintaining a backlog of specific tasks and objectives. But if we don’t do it, we continue wasting time and resources with work-around processes such as requiring everyone to work in the office 100% of the time.

Think of a company that makes consumer products. Any company that makes something must put a price on it. A purchase will not happen (goods or value for money) if a price is not on the thing we want to buy or sell. Now think of a consumer products company that makes hundreds or thousands of different products. Everyone one of those products must be priced. Someone is committing the effort to price each one of those products in all variations and sizes. And the result is an efficient exchange in the store. A quick understanding of value for money.

We need to do the same thing for service work, including design activities: we need to define what we want from each person on the team (a backlog of specific tasks, all the time). When both parties have a clear understanding of what is to be done and at what price (such as when you request something from an outside attorney or accountant), then very little oversight is needed and it matters where the work is done.

Steve Pruneau leads executives and business owners to solve the gap between variable revenue and a fixed workforce. He is the first consultant at Free Agent Source. As a founder, Steve engages the broader community of corporate clients, entrepreneurs, startups and consultants. He manages company operations and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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