Is working at Yahoo! no better than “gentrified slavery”?

Author: Paul | Date posted: March 25, 2013

At first blush the term “slavery” may seem too strong to describe Yahoo!’s controversial new policy. I’m sure any person who has experienced any type of slavery would never compare her experience to being paid a salary (and benefits) to work in a climate-controlled office for 40 hours per week.

I use the term not to suggest they are the same, but to highlight the issue of human dignity. We live in an age where the perspective of “employee as a cog in the machine” has been dissected and invalidated. This post on the history of workforce automation by David Saintloth offers a rather academic review of the issue.

Research shows that great customer service boosts company performance and employee engagement is linked to the bottom line. Successful technology entrepreneur Elon Musk recently said he has learned to hire people based on their character, not just their inventory of skills. And data suggests that home-based workers are more productive.

All of these modern findings suggest one thing: Treat employees as human beings with an inherent right to dignity and your company can thrive.

This means that knowledge-based employees whose work isn’t directly tied to a physical facility should have the flexibility to work where and when they can best do there jobs. A company that doesn’t provide the trusting, respectful, and performance-driven culture that supports flexible working is failing to respect basic human dignity.

The idea of eliminating flexible working and forcing all employees back into the office is reminiscent of the panopticon, a prison design by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. French philosopher Michel Foucault later used the concept to describe the relationship between surveillance, discipline and power.

Having taken time to reflect on the “get back to the office now” comments from Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, it is clear to me that what she is actually saying is no better than “gentrified slavery”.

These policies are based on physical control and are rooted in an underlying lack of trust and respect, and a reliance on surveillance. In this view, real slavery and this rigid opposition to flexible working are related points on a spectrum.

Businessman shackled to ball and chain

I used the phrase “gentrified slavery” in my book “The Digital Workplace – How Technology is Liberating Work” in July 2012 and Yahoo! is a perfect example in action. What is Yahoo! doing when it commands its remote workers to be “at the office” daily or leave the company? It has become evident that in this case the issue is not about productivity and management but about physical control.

Today, for most organizations, where work happens has become a choice rather than a necessity. We do not need to travel for hours to and from the office in order to have a productive day’s work. Microsoft, for example, allows staff to choose where they work and while they create compelling and appealing working environments, they do not mandate that staff be there each day. Many staff choose to spend some or all of the week in the Microsoft facilities – but that is the key word: choose.

As I said in my book, and it applies to Yahoo! totally:

“The issue of physical control is still fundamental to work in most organizations today. Looked at objectively, I believe modern work shares some of the deeply unpleasant characteristics of a historical form of slavery, albeit in a ‘gentrified’ form. Work often involves control over the physical movement of staff: ‘I want my people here at their desks each day, all day’ say many managers – just as slaves were, and still are, restrained physically in order to control their movement. The other key aspect of historical slavery is that slaves were tethered, then supervised and monitored to check that they were working as required. The modern workplace equivalent is the manager who operates by only feeling secure and in control if they can directly watch their team at work at their desks.

“This is revealed when managers resist the notion of their staff working outside the office because ‘I don’t want them wasting time watching TV at home – I need them here where I can keep my eye on them.’ The key concern for such managers with portable work practices is the fear of losing control. These two aspects of most work still create a gentrified type of slavery, based on physical control and direct observation. The ability to choose and flex, based on what is needed, breaks the yoke of physical restraint for the first time. Overwhelmingly, people then feel a deep sense of release and liberation, as if an invisible chain has been unlocked.”

In many cases this is not about whether productive, innovative work happens in the shared space of the office or in the isolation of home or the local coffee shops. It is about culture and control. In most studies, home-based workers are 30% more productive than office workers but in my experience leading a company with 60 people and no fixed offices, a mixture of formats creates an ideal combination that produces the best for the company and each person.

Two types of companies

But  Mayer is not alone in her comments. Just as disappointing were the words from Google CFO Patrick Pichette when asked how many people at Google work from home and he said “as few as possible”. There is a sinister quality to the Googleplex offices where an exotic theme park is designed to attract people to work there. What staff want is choice and influence over where and how they work, so long as they are producing quality results. Google is dressing their policy in shiny clothes but creating an expectation (or is it a subtle command?) to be in their Mountain View HQ each day rather than in San Francisco where many staff live.

Both Yahoo! and Google are waging a losing battle. What will Google do when their staff tire of commuting to and from the Googleplex each day? Get more table tennis tables, better food, more entertainment? What many Google staff want is to decide when they come to the office and when they work from a cafe (probably with other Googlers) in downtown San Francisco, when from home and who knows what other future variants.

Yahoo! and Google are espousing a culture tied too heavily to the past, while other large technologies companies such as Microsoft and Cisco take a totally different stance. As do many large corporates. One of the best examples is Unilever, whose HR Director Fiona Laird says:

“We are investing in facilities but it’s your choice where you work – home, café or a Unilever office. We notice we have higher rates of occupancy now but people aren’t forced to come to work: it’s their decision where they work on any given day.”

Work and the means of work have been detached in the digital world of work today and that location dependency will never return. Gentrified slavery is what we have been used to for decades and companies like Cisco, Accenture, Microsoft have accepted and even celebrated that as an evolution in working habits. It seems Yahoo!, Google and Facebook (which operates much like Google) are still wedded to working patterns from the last century.

Flexible working is rooted in a basic respect for human dignity. It requires a company to focus on employees’ results and develop inspiring and effective managers, rather than focus on 19th century workplace surveillance. This can be more challenging than forcing employees back into the office. But isn’t that often the case for doing the right thing?

Five Digital Workplace Maxims

  • You do not need to meet physically to build trust; while it can help it is not essential.
  • If you don’t design your future in this area, it will design you and your culture.
  • The Digital Workplace produces less ‘politics’ and distractions than being in an office all day, every day.
  • Work itself is not getting easier or less demanding – it’s just that its ‘shape’ and location are changing.
  • It is impossible to implement a successful Digital Workplace without high degrees of trust and autonomy.

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