How do you know they are working?” That’s the most common response I get after I tell people about Microsoft’s policy of allowing employees to work away from the office whenever appropriate. The higher up the corporate ladder, the more likely that response.
Flexible working arrangements are not for every person or job. But for some reason, so many Australian managers just don’t get the basic fact that work is something you do, not a place you go; people need to be accountable for outcomes, not for time served; 9 to 5 is a song, not a lifestyle.
Our lives have changed. The old days where top-down, ”do as I tell you” autocracy ruled and where the bundy clock was an indispensable management tool have gone. Many still seem caught in the time warp, unable to countenance a world where unseen does not automatically mean unproductive.
Trust, or the lack of it, seems to be at the heart of many managers’ reluctance to allow people to work remotely. Recent studies support the business case for remote working by highlighting improved employee satisfaction, reduced attrition rates, fewer absences and reduced office costs.
A Stanford University study, published in February, also revealed markedly increased performance. In that study, conducted with the huge Chinese travel agency Ctrip, call centre employees were randomly assigned to work from home or in the office for nine months. The question ”how do you know they are working?” was answered with a 13 per cent performance increase from the home workers, plus an increase in work satisfaction and a lower turnover. The benefits of trust were so obvious that Ctrip has decided to give the option to all its 16,000 employees.
Douglas Conant famously turned the Campbell Soup business around through his belief that ”you can only win in the marketplace if you win in the workplace first”. On taking over as president and chief executive in 2001, the ailing company had a falling share price, poor sales and what Conant has described as a ”toxic culture”. He decided that he had to turn that culture around in order to turn around the company’s performance.
He started at the top, creating a leadership model among his managers that had the No.1 goal of inspiring trust.
”Before you have the moral authority to lead your team, you have to inspire trust,” Conant said. ”Trust is the one thing that changes everything.”
The toxic culture slowly changed, as did the returns to shareholders. On his arrival, a Gallup employee engagement index returned a ratio of a little less than 2 to 1, meaning that for every two people engaged in work, one was looking for another job. By 2010, the index was 17-1, well above the world class benchmark. For the six years before 2010, the cumulative shareholder return was 64 per cent, a massive increase on the 13 per cent average of the S&P 500.
At Microsoft, we know that if we keep our employees happy, we will get results in the marketplace.
That’s why we look for people who want to work for something other than a pay cheque. The ability for everyone to work out of the office where the circumstances allow is an integral part of the package that has people regularly rating us as an employer of choice – with all age groups and demographics, but particularly with those with children or ageing parents.
As Conant found, culture comes from the top. My experience talking to people outside Microsoft has been that while many executives spout the company culture line, very few actually live them. They talk trust but don’t exhibit it.
My family is the most important thing to me and that’s why I have in my work calendar for everyone to see, appointments like ”tuckshop duty” and ”netball coaching”. People know my priorities and trust me to get my work done at a time and place that suits me. They know that instead of talking about a work/life balance I concentrate on making life work better.
Technology has given us the opportunity to work remotely and research has shown that the practice is efficient and productive. Our offices are wherever we are, our work hours are when we choose them. It’s the outcome that’s important. That’s why, on November 7, I’m challenging all our employees to not come into the office that day. We’re calling it Spring Day Out and we’re asking people to ”get it done” from anywhere they want. That might be a customer’s office or a team brainstorm in the park. We know they’ll all complete their work in time – at the time and from the place that works best for them.
Maybe you’d like to see if your employees might like to do the same sometime. Trust me: I know you’ll all get value out of it.
Pip Marlow is managing director of Microsoft Australia.