Why Accountability Is Key To Successful Workplace Flexibility

Workplace trust is wonderful in theory, but will fall apart without accountability–as the recent work-from-home flap at Yahoo showed.

Why Accountability Is Key To Successful Workplace Flexibility

Not a lot of people exclaimed “Yahoo!” at the online giant’s latest mandate, accidentally disclosed a week or so ago: workers could no longer work from home. Since that announcement, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has come under heavy fire from such respected online sites as Forbes, Slate and Bloomberg BusinessWeek–as well as from some high-powered Twitter users.


Does it seem contradictory, an internet company telling its workers they can’t do their jobs maximizing remote work via the internet?

Indications are that a big part of Mayer’s concern was that employees who worked from home weren’t as productive as those who came into the office, which brings us to a tricky issue that’s symptomatic of a seismic shift in how the U.S. does business.

As is widely written about, the fact is that the American economy used to be all about making things–but, in recent years, the service industry has vastly outstripped the manufacturing side. Every year, the list of Fortune 500 companies features more and more service companies and fewer and fewer manufacturers, and, currently, our GDP is estimated to be composed of roughly 19% industry and 80% service. Right now, six out of seven American workers are employed by service-oriented companies such as Wal-Mart and the Kelly temp agency, while only one out of ten are employed by manufacturers.

What does this have to do with Yahoo!’s shutdown of telecommuters? Simply this; it’s much more difficult to lead, manage, motivate and measure a team and the results of service work, as opposed to managing face-to-face manufacturing production. When a job is to make something, there are very simple physical measurements an employer can utilize when it comes to performance. With knowledge-based work, those measurements become a lot more elusive–and a lot less conclusive–especially when these knowledge workers are not at the office.

At the same time, younger workers, because they are accustomed to being service workers, want to be granted a lot more autonomy in their jobs. They feel they should be trusted to do their work wherever they might be doing it, and they resist any attempt at oppressive oversight by management.

Adding weight to their argument is the fact that productivity actually seems to increase when an employee turns telecommuter. A Brigham Young University study demonstrated that those who worked from home were able to work up to 57 hours a week before any real strain showed. Those who came to an office to work? Only 38 hours. Similarly, a Stanford University study concluded that workers were 13% more productive at home (in China, anyway…).


Nevertheless, today’s business leaders still face a big conflict; when they grant employees more autonomy, they naturally feel less in control–and more unsure of what they’re really getting out of their workforce. And it’s perhaps this tension that is causing Yahoo!’s overreaction to those they employ who work from home. When your worker is at the office, you can at least see what he or she is up to throughout the day. When they’re working from a home office, it’s easy to picture them distracted by their personal lives and not as focused on their jobs as you would like them to be.

Trust is wonderful in theory, but sometimes, without a realistic process of accountability in place, it can’t help but fall apart in practice. That’s why an “old school” approach to this new wave of employees might be the best one; to “inspect what we expect.” This is a simple two-step process, in which (1) you spend quality time with the employee to let them know what you expect from his or her work and get their thoughts, feedback and ultimately joint buy-in on expectations (2) you follow up consistently and regularly and inspect to see if those expectations are being met.

When everyone knows what needs to be done, and everything gets done, the supervisor feels in control of the situation–and the employees feel as if they have the freedom to do their work as they see fit. That’s a big win-win for everybody. And besides, research shows that goal-setting motivates employees to grow and learn, as long as they feel they have some input into those goals.

It’s fine to give workers the freedom they want as long as there’s a strong framework in place that holds them accountable at the end of the day. Leading a team in today’s work environment is not for the faint of heart; it’s incredibly challenging as well as very rewarding. Trust is best when there’s a basis for it–something maybe Yahoo! should have considered before it called everybody back to the office.

[Image: Flickr user Landahlauts]

About the author

As President of PeopleClues, Julie is responsible for leading the organization to meet global objectives. During the past 21 years, Julie has become a nationally respected authority on practical business applications of assessment technologies.