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Give me freedom…or, give me a desk?

By Jason Milligan

If you’re like me, and enjoy the convergence of business, management, and culture, then you’ve been reading all the articles lately about recent changes at Yahoo Corporation. Immediately after the announced changes recalling Yahoo telecommuters back to the office many at-home-work advocates decried the move as “backward” and “poorly thought through”. They derided the new CEO (and circumstantially new mother) Marissa Mayer for her apparent sin against working mothers and fathers, and how this decision was a setback for the world of working parents, let alone all the environmentalists who believe tele-working, or off-site working, helps to reduce emissions otherwise emitted transporting workers to and from work. I agreed in principal with Yahoo’s CEO, if something was broken, it was her duty to fix it, eventually, if she can’t figure out the answer, she and/or the company would be gone as well.

But the articles kept coming…and I’ve been enthralled. These articles span the broad spectrum of this Yahoo dustup, there is the ‘lower cost structure’ claim that businesses enjoy as a result of employing ‘off-site workers’, to the benefits of a more mobile society, and all the societal benefits that result (better use of existing housing, lower energy usage, healthier employees, healthier employee dependents etc…). I’ve been amazed to also read those who feel the Yahoo CEO was ‘out-of-bounds’, and still others who made a big deal arguing that if “she” (the CEO), were a “he”, this announcement would be a ‘non-issue’.

I believe differently, I believe this memo that Yahoo released became such a large issue because of a deeper, more central issue to all of our lives. That issue goes to the heart of every organization, the personality of a company, and the innovative group dynamic that can spawn innovation, and how we differentiate ourselves from other similar companies. I remember as a boy my grandparents teaching me to fold my hands as in prayer, and we’d sing a little song…you may know it…“here’s the church, there’s the steeple, open up (your folded hands) and there’s all the people”.  So, like that church example, our businesses are more about the people than the bricks and mortar. So if our being physically together is crucial to our mission, then where and how we work ‘corporately’ is a concern for all.  Our work culture is shifting in tectonic ways, and the path forward is yet unclear, and that is why this issue has caught fire.

So the real issue isn’t about the gender of Yahoo’s CEO, or our use of natural resources…it’s about how we all of us will (from here on) function in the future. This issue is about how much the internet can (or cannot) fundamentally change the way we function as groups, as businesses, as families.  And, how are corporate goals best accomplished in this new age? Will real work be conducted from everywhere? I see people in strange places (e.g.…airport restrooms, ick!) fiddling with their iPhones, is that work they are ‘doing’? What and where is your future corporate culture going, and who drives the change to get there? Answer this question: Can a team accomplish the same results, if they never set foot in the same room, building, state, or country? And how then do we enculturate new employees into our organizations if they never physically meet?

Will future work happen everywhere, or will some employees still show up to work at a building, sit behind a desk and mark time until closing time? Many companies have spent a fortune in the last decade figuring out how the internet has changed customer behavior, buying patterns, and finding new ways to market to those who (like you and I) surf the web. This story has legs because it involves all of us on some level, and the companies that invented this new age.  Yahoo makes their living off the internet, and is now confronting the very real realities that the internet has changed the fabric of their organization, and seemingly not for the better. It’s a new world of work, and we are all intrigued because we want to see how a company like Yahoo handles it, as it may, just may, impact how our collective corporate culture changes.

Next week, I’ll continue this thread, by discussing corporate culture and how we in the Material Handling world might adjust and adapt our corporate cultures to fit the new world of remote workers.