The Workplace: Individual Contribution or Community

Employees discuss in office - The Workplace: Individual Contribution or Community

Marisa Meyer–new CEO of Yahoo and a new mother–took a strong stand on a debate about the nature of a progressive, employee-valuing and innovative workplace. Emulating her former employer Google she decreed that Yahoo employees were now required to be present in person and working together. She feels that a creative and high performing workplace is needed to renew Yahoo. In order to harness the collaborative creativity she feels that employees must be physically together, to have the sort of informal time to exchange, learn from each other and build new ideas. While as a new parent she must be aware that some employees want the flexibility to work at home to balance work and personal responsibilities, she feels strongly that the workplace suffers if people are working at home and not there together.

Google is in many ways a model workplace. Googlers put in long hours, usually working ten hours daily plus two more productive hours on the specially equipped black Google bus that ferries them to and from their home communities. While they have to be present for so much of their week, the workplace also allows them 20% of their time for their own projects, but of course only if they are present at work. The company caters and provides “concierge” services to help them with daily tasks. People love working there, and the company is consistently rated among the “best places to work.” So naturally Meyer wants to tap that energy to rejuvenate struggling Yahoo.

But there is a downside to this intensive community engagement, spoken about quietly at Google and in other high-engagement communities. One employee mentioned that single young people were initially delighted to put in such time, which reminded them of their recent college days, but when they began to commit to a spouse and family, they had second thoughts about the overall quality of their life. A workplace for thirty year olds is not one that suits older family members. A former spouse of a Google employee with two children reported that her marriage ended when her husband disappeared into work at Google. She soon learned he was leaving her to take up with a co-worker. While a CEO might keep such hours, is this a reasonable expectation for a young person who wants to advance at work, but also have a family?

In contrast, there is another popular model of the fulfilling workplace. This model encourages independence in the form of work at home time flexibility to work around school and family events, and set one’s hours. The Results-Only-Work-Environment (ROWE) is a workplace where employees are expected to produce results, taking any time and any way of working that suits them. Some data suggests that people with such flexible work arrangements are more productive.

So, should a workplace allow flexibility about work, or create a strong, communal identity? Can it do both? A corporate culture probably has to make a choice between the value on community, the shared culture, and the value on individual choice and flexibility. Of course, one can envision a workplace where for example, two days a week are “open and free” and there is a core of shared work time together, a neat both/and solution. But I have not seen one in practice yet.

These two models are popular with people at different stages of life, and with different personalities and work styles. Each one reflects a different corporate culture and expresses a set of values about work. By adopting one or the other, the workplace makes a choice to attract a certain type of person at a certain stage of life. But each one has a downside, and neither one is “right” or even “the best”.

I like the lure of a strong face-to-face community, but I find myself feeling that the strong community model may be asking too much of its employees and certainly makes life balance difficult. Recent attention has been paid to how women who want to balance work and family will not select this sort of workplace. As a professor in an online university, I work in a virtual work group with a ROWE-ish flexibility, where I do not have to go in to work, but work primarily through telephone conferences. I like it, and it fits my family style, introverted personality and idea of personal freedom. But I see its limits also. As we have moved to work at home, with different faculty in different places, we know each other personally less and less, and we have little time for shared projects. We do not have deep working relationships, and our ability to initiate shared projects and build on shared ideas suffers. I feel acutely the loss of a shared ability to create new ideas and projects together. I feel a little lonely and disconnected. But I can’t see myself joining a community as comprehensive as Google. Right now, I’m living on the horns of this dilemma, longing for a strong community while valuing my personal flexibility and freedom. I would like to do better.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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