Time to define 'workplace' by commitment, not location

I have a confession to make: Like many good PR professionals, I once wrote a keynote speech for a high-ranking senior executive at a Fortune 500 company from a hospital bed.

I have a confession to make: Like many good PR professionals, I once wrote a keynote speech for a high-ranking senior executive at a Fortune 500 company from a hospital bed. I've taken client and work calls from just about every vacation spot imaginable and even developed a launch strategy for a new product release while on maternity leave. If I – and countless others – can do all of that, why shouldn't we also be able to occasionally do it from home?

Frankly, I thought this was a question that never needed asking until I saw the recent announcement from Yahoo's HR department that employees will no longer be able to work remotely. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” HR head Jackie Reses stated in a memo to employees. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

Regardless of your stance on the policy, what Yahoo did was long on controversy, partly, because of the manner in how it was communicated. As PR professionals, we know all too well that what you do is important, but so is what you say and how you say it. Successful engagement is only a result of continuous listening, transparency, and conversation. In Yahoo's case, employees found out long after the fact - and in response to the media firestorm - that the move was done as part of a greater strategic business decision. In that case, the change of policy should have been shared directly from the CEO rather than via a surprise memo from the HR department. Internal communications are most often well received when they are done in an honest, transparent, and collaborative manner.

Great company culture requires continuous movement, priority, and effort. The CEO who said “Really strong companies all have really strong cultures” was right. By the way, that CEO was Marissa Mayer.  

The irony is that the very technology that Mayer has spent her career evolving is the very one that cuts the proverbial cord tying people to the office as the only physical workspace. We now have access to just about anything one might need thanks to our electronic files, our highly capable smart phones, and even a search engine called Google, where current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was an executive and engineer for many years.

To be clear – and fair – in my opinion, media has not often been either to Mayer. It wasn't long ago that I came to her defense when coverage of her appointment seemed to focus more on her love of high-end fashion and cupcakes than on her qualifications. I sincerely believe that if any male CEO had instituted the same policy, we'd be hearing an almost equal backlash. The fact that this CEO is a woman only makes it, well, more disappointing.

At Edelman – and many companies like it – the general policy is up to the individual and their manager, depending on the type of work. Katie Burke, Edelman's global chief of staff, works from home two days a week and has flex hours the other three days. Her direct manager? It's the CEO.

In the PR industry, we understand the importance of research and, thus, it was surprising to see the disregard to the endless research that speaks to the benefits of flex time and working remotely, not only for the employees who are able to reduce traffic time, improve work-life balance and feel more productive. But also for the employers who get great productivity from their employees, improved morale, energy savings, and talent retention. A Harvard Business Review blog, “Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged,” sums it up well.

Recently, Stanford released the findings of a nine-month study of a China-based travel agency. According to the findings, “Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which about 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick-days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and experienced less turnover.”

In today's competitive PR industry, finding – and retaining – the best people should be our top priority. For me, I don't really care where people physically work…as long as they get the work done. I once had a client relationship manager who wanted to coach his son's baseball game one day a week so we arranged for him to work from home that day. Clients loved him and, as a result of our flexibility, he was extremely loyal to Edelman. A workplace should never be defined as where your desktop computer lives; it should be where your commitment does.

Gail Becker is chair of Canada, Latin America, and the US Western Region at Edelman.

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