Mar 1 '13
It is no secret that Elephant Creative is built on a culture of flexible working. In fact, over recent months we’ve become known for being champions of the concept… shouting the benefits for clients and associates from the rooftops and ramparts.
In the March edition of Director Magazine, I was asked to explain my thoughts on the subject and it was with great interest that, as if timed to coincide, I also read, this month, the news from Yahoo!. A memo sent last week by the company’s head of human resources told Yahoo! staff that they had until the summer to migrate back to the company HQ in Sunnyvale, California, or forfeit their job amid mounting concern that workers were “hiding” from bosses who had lost track of who was supposed to be where and doing what.
Naturally the subject has been pounced on by lobbying groups and ‘the vocal campaigners for women in the workplace’. As if adding fuel to the fire, they point out that the Silicon Valley web-pioneer’s Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, has recently built state-of-the-art childcare facilities at their glossy California HQ… and that she returned to work after only two weeks of maternity leave, following the birth of her first child… Ah… I get it now. It’s obvious… she’s a child-hater, clearly ‘letting the side down’ in the fight for equality in the workplace. Yes, it is right and just that we should vilify her for making this decision.
Well… no. I shall say it now and say it loud… flexible working should not be classed as a ‘women’s issue’. The best businesses should be made up of the best people, selected on a meritocratic basis. If you want to keep these best people you need to consider how they want to work. The fact that, as a society, we make it hard for great professional women to combine a career with a family is a certain by-product, resulting in a less than fair gender balance in the boardroom, but it should not be the crux of the argument. They may be a working mother or a newly graduated male. It makes zero difference. If businesses stop thinking of employees as ‘workers’ and start thinking of them as ‘people’ then they stand to benefit.
It was with relief, therefore, that I listened to Jonathan Brenner, co-founder of Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers on Demand programme – a flexible working legal service, providing remote workers and seconded lawyers to businesses – on the Radio 4’s Today programme. First, for the avoidance of doubt… Jonathan is a man. He is also an advocate of flexible working…
Jonathan believes that productivity, expertise, flexibility and ‘best value’ are the important factors in approaching working practices. The voice of reason rang out from my radio as he explained that, in his opinion, it was short-sighted to believe that forcing people to work on-site would address Yahoo!’s clear communication and cultural issues.
Like Jonathan, I am under little illusion that running a virtual, flexible-working environment makes for hard work. It is most certainly not the easy option. Communication is hard and, as Ms Mayer pointed out “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
Sir Richard Branson commented on the recent Yahoo! news by saying that “if you provide the right technology to keep in touch, maintain regular communication and get the right balance between remote and office working, people will be motivated to work responsibly, quickly and with high quality”. It’s a mentality that both I and Jonathan Brenner subscribe to, as well.
We have to work hard, here at Elephant Creative, to establish a culture that is based on trust (and whole heap of reporting). It would, admittedly, be a lot easier to have weekly meetings and shout across the room, rather than relying on (frequently) dodgy internet connections, Skype and cloud-based technologies. In fact, this year, we’ve finally buckled and introduced two ‘Elephant Days’, where associates get together to meet (often for the first time).
But this hard work is worth it for the benefits it affords both our clients and our associates. For one, I work ten times harder, as a remote worker, than I do when distracted by an office environment. Our turn-around speeds are faster and our productivity much greater. We record our project management and time worked on cloud-based software, ensuring that, at any point, the whole team can see what’s going on and interact… as can clients, if they want. The costs we charge clients go directly on expertise – rather than expensive office space and childcare facilities. But similarly, I’ve been able to support women (and men) returning to the workplace after starting a family… those changing careers or going through redundancy… even those just starting out and leaving university (or school). Yes, it’s hard and getting it to work has been rather like drawing teeth at times but we’ve worked as a team and the results are clear for all. I have the best people, the business is growing at a rate of knots and (most of the time) people are happy.
When Dimagi, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company that develops mobile apps designed to improve health care in developing countries, decided to let all of its employees work from Brazil for six-weeks (just because they could), they did so because they believed that people should feel comfortable in and empowered by their working environment. Importantly, they believed that they, as the employer, should make the sacrifices to keep people engaged and motivated to perform well.
In short, I love the fact that Elephant Creative is made up of really excellent professionals. But to get them and keep them I have to be prepared to ‘dance to their tune’ a little… and that means presenting a working structure and environment that allows them to live the working (and personal) lives that they want. I’m able to do this because each and every one has subscribed to the cultural values by which Elephant Creative has grown – expertise, flexibility, and results – and is prepared to work as hard as I at keeping in touch and communicating well.
Yahoo!’s decision can, in my opinion, best be described as curious. Locking people in an ivory tower does not solve cultural or, in fact, communication problems. If employees are ‘hiding’ then they are surely just as likely to do the same when backed into a corner and forced to work in a way that they don’t want. My fear is that this radical move will result in a loss of key personnel, an even worse sense of brand ‘buy in’ and the eventual destruction of the inspirational turn-around that Ms Mayer has effected in the business thus far.
This post was written by Helen Hammond, Managing Director of Elephant Creative. You can follow Helen on Twitter on @helenhammond