Knowledge Workers Are Like Artists: Invest Don’t Ban Marissa Mayer

Imagine banning an actor from performing on a stage, a writer from writing in a coffee shop, or a painter from painting a landscape on a hill when the light was just right. Or banning a poet from scrawling in the back of their note pad while commuting on a train; or prohibiting a classical ballet dancer from dancing in an urban street performance. Where we work influences how we work. And when an artist is controlled it influences if we might work at all.  

Knowledge workers are creatives. They are artists designing the world we live in. A world of digital design and hidden architecture. Their medium of choice is not paint or pencil, but meaning conveyed through code and keyboard.

Why, however are knowledge workers in the technology sector not treated as creatives? Why do leading tech companies like ! still insist on co-located working when the very technology they create facilitates flexible social distributed working. In a memo sent to thousands of ! employees last week, Jackie Reses (from HR) did just that. She writes: “Beginning of June we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

Reading between the lines, , CEO of Yahoo!, is spearheading this move that stipulates a ban on Yahoo!’s telecommuting or work-from-home policy. A policy thousands of employees have penned into their contracts. A policy many believe is important to foster a results only workplace environment (ROWE). A policy that shows trust in colleagues and values different ways of working. A policy Mayer, Reses (and the board) is banning without consultation, without discussion, effective in June.

A ban is a decree that prohibits something. It is prohibition. On the one hand it can be seen as a negative act, to stop something. On the other, it can be seen as an act to maintain the status quo.

Irrespective of the intended result — to stop or maintain; a ban conveys and power.

In our life times many of us would have experienced some form of prohibition enacted on us by another. Do you remember as a child in a bid to teach you what practice is valued and what is not; or to punish you for an act that may have caused another harm or disruption; your parents or guardian may have banned you from something?

Perhaps you were banned from watching TV or certain TV programs, except for on weekends. Perhaps you were banned from playing computer games before your homework was completed. Or you were told not to cross the road on your own or walk on the grass (because it was still growing). Perhaps you were banned from entering the work shed or factory because it was dangerous. Or maybe you were banned from reading a certain type of book or magazine at school. Perhaps you were banned from hanging out or dating someone; from wearing make-up or drinking (under the legal age). Or worse … perhaps you were banned from marrying someone, from wearing certain types of clothing or banned from working all together.

Banning something is often counterproductive. It might work the short-term (A is discouraged from doing B); but it doesn’t work in the long term. Over time the act of banning or prohibiting the actions of another fosters a culture of control and power, and eventually forms of rebellion will surface. Be it drinking before you are of age, hiding behind the sofa to watch TV late at night or applying make-up in the school toilets before you secretly go on that date you were told not to.

As responsible trustworthy and hardworking adults, however, in the workplace and in life, the act of banning something can have serious consequences. An act of control can effect ones workplace culture, can spark protests and work lockouts for better working conditions, physical or psychological acts of sabotage, and a decline in staff morale, company innovation and stakeholder confidence.

In short, not a good move Mayer!

Furthermore, it is a move that doesn’t maintain the status quo. Working from just about anywhere is not just an “option” for many creative information and knowledge workers; it is a reality. Telecommuting has risen 69% from 2000 to 2010 in the US and the technology sector is one of the biggest supporters of ROWE based policies.

While some agree with the move, stating that face to face meetings are important for innovation, collaboration and weeding out unproductive employees; others, however disagree, indicating it speaks of an old world mentality, a backward step and an executive that in short does not value or trust her fellow colleagues.

“At first glance, this seems perfectly reasonable,” writes Pozen. “Hourly wages and the classic 40-hour work week have trained us to measure our labor by the number of hours we log. However, this mindset is dead wrong when applied to today’s professionals. The value of lawyers, consultants, and analysts isn’t the time they spend, but the value they create through their knowledge.” (Tye Kiisel, Forbes)

“Perplexed by Yahoo! Stopping remote working. Give people the freedom where to work and they will excel.” (Richard Branson, Virgin)

The very nature of what Marissa Mayer has enacted will crumble any bit of innovative energy and supportive culture the tech company still has. Why?

  • By not valuing the very thing knowledge workers value, i.e., freedom to be creative and productive where ever they are creative and productive.
  • By focusing on the numbers; the no of cars parked in the parking lot, the number of employees at their cubicles or in the halls, the number of hours clocked; and not what is created.
  • By enacting the decision in a way that breaks the very thing many knowledge workers need to innovate — trust in the people they are collaborating with.

 All this screams that Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer herself needs to value and trust her colleagues a little more; and focus on systems and incentives for supporting workplace change and less on blanked banning (WFH) policies.

Not only will this action and its resultant publicity have an impact on how stakeholders consider Yahoo!, it will also result in a dramatic change to the organizational cultural of the already troubled tech business. As an argument to weed out unproductive employees it falls thin. Something improved results reporting could address. But where it falls thick is on the effect it will have on parents, single parents, working mothers, carers, individuals with health concerns; or those who can’t commute due to mental or physical challenges.

We are mean’t to be making workplaces more diverse and working conditions more equitable for all. Not MORE in favor of those who can afford private child care and are in good health, wealth and physical ability.

Who would want to work at Yahoo! now. Especially innovative and creative individuals who value their freedom and flexibility in order to innovate (and be happy) and those that value diversity in the ways people work.

And who’d want to stay working in a culture where collaboration is not valued vertically only horizontally.

Where a decision about ones contract and ones work-life balance policies are not brokered through discussion but discipline.

In short, Invest don’t Ban!   

When someone invests time, trust and respects you, your ideas and your work, you feel valued. It is feeling valued that not only results in productivity, loyalty and acts of creativity and innovation; it makes us happier. Being happy leads to a positive work environment where everyone not only wants to work, but actually wants to come into work.

How can Yahoo invest to foster a culture of innovation & collaboration and where people want to come to work?

  1. Invest in the ideas of people ask people what they think will make Yahoo! a more collaborative and innovative place to work. Don’t just crunch the numbers and issue directives. Build it together. Including ways to address abuses and enact change to WFH policies (if they need change). 
  2. Invest in the voice of people equally — irrespective of their ideas, backgrounds or circumstance. Not just those who are sat at your table or the board table.
  3. Invest in different ways that people work — support that today we work, live, learn and play differently. Diversity is power, not similarity. But for diversity to flourish difference and its communications needs to be valued and shared. 
  4. Invest in human-centered workplace design — to support people how/where everyone is working and where everyone has equal rights. Not just those who can afford nannies, after school care, are senior executives and/or wealthy or healthy. Be creative. 
  5. Invest in a conversation/collaboration design — to support sharing of how people are working and on what on; irrespective of where. With support for co-location where required. Be socially innovative. Make co-location not the status quo. 
  6. Invest in community learning — develop workplace nurseries for everyones children (not just the senior executives); start/invest in a local charter schools (near office) with fee-reduction incentives for the next generation of Yahoos (not just pre-tax payment schemes). Develop a learning culture inspired by speakers, residential’s, visitors — collaborative opportunities hosted at work and accessible at home. Give people a reason to come to work.     
  7. Invest in people and they’ll invest in you. Distrust people and they’ll distrust you.

Irrespective of where we work, the place of work — the culture, the design, the people, the policies, has a significant impact on our artistic, creative sensibilities.

If the light is no good in one place, or the stage too dark, the coffee shop too busy, or the train moving too fast (or not fast enough); the artist will move on.

To where who knows, and who cares.

So long as they are still creating art.

Be it by paint or pencil; or code and keyboard.

The artist needs space to create.

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