By Steve Kelman
On Feb. 26, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had issued a memo rescinding the company’s policy on telework (which the article quaintly calls “telecommuting”) and ordering workers back to the office. Given the expansion of telework in the federal government, and the suggestion that this is a wave of the future that only trogdolyte managers resist, the story is an interesting one.
What is going on?
The basic story behind Yahoo’s decision is that the company believes that having workers interact with each other face to face promotes both collaboration and innovation, two features Yahoo wants to see in its workplace as the company tries to turn itself around. (The article notes that the new Yahoo policy is simply a more extreme version of a Google company policy that discourages telework.)
The argument makes sense. We can communicate better with others when we see facial expressions, body language, and when we can have the banter that comes naturally to face-to-face communication. We build social ties and learn a lot at the water cooler. And innovation is often born when ideas and thoughts confront each other in real time, with real-time reactions, and that is also done best face to face.
But telework has advantages too from an organizational perspective. Research shows, as the article notes, that telework is often worse for innovation, but better for productivity at fixed jobs. Organizations get to downsize their real estate portfolios (a hot theme in government that will become hotter with tight budget times), and productive work is not lost to commuting time.
Telework is hard when there are no metrics to judge an employee’s work. These are the situations – probably often unnecessarily used as a crutch in government organizations – where a supervisor will want to keep an eye on employees to make sure they’re not loafing. The flip side is that the better the metrics the less need for the supervisor’s watchful eye on the employee’s body – the supervisor can look at the employee’s work product or output.
From an employee satisfaction perspective, having a telework option is nice, even if a given employee chooses never or seldom to use it. (To be frank, many professors frequently do what we call “working from home,” aka telework, although I personally like to go into the office when I’m in Boston.)
The bottom line, in my view, is that there is not a telework one-size-fits-all. If Yahoo really wants collaboration and innovation, maybe it should prohibit telework, at least for the employees it wants to be collaborative and innovative. But other organizations, or jobs within organizations, will likely benefit from telework.
Readers, what do you think? What have been your organizational experiences with telework?
Posted on Feb 27, 2013 at 12:01 PM7 comments
Justin Herman, new media manager at the GSA’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, shown speaking at GSA's Social Media Week in February. (FCW photo by Frank Konkel)
FCW reporter Frank Konkel wrote an interesting article on FCW.com on efforts growing out of a working group inside the General Services Administration to develop performance measures for government social media sites.
I found the article fascinating from two perspectives. First, the metrics themselves look sensible. For example, they suggest tracking "conversions" (when people click through from the post to additional linked content), "loyalty" (when first-time visitors return), and "customer service" (timeliness in responding to requests). I am guessing many of these metrics grow out of private-sector practice in tracking social media effectiveness; and I say this as a kudos for learning from others, not a knock for lack of originality. There are too many home-grown approaches in government to issues that have perfectly good private-sector counterparts. I am also hoping that the data to track many of the metrics presented is generated either free or at very low cost.
These metrics also lend themselves to performance improvement – figuring out how to do a better job. Companies are already frequently running quick experiments for their webpages or social media offerings, randomly exposing visitors to different versions of a message, or positioning a message at different parts of a screen, in order to see, for example, which produces more click-throughs. Government needs to start doing these kinds of experiments (in a scientific sense – two different treatments to randomly chosen groups, to look to see whether the result is different) in a lot of areas, and experiments involving social media effectiveness is a good place to start.
But this article is significant even for people who are not involved at all in social media. It is a sign that performance measurement – in this year, the twentieth anniversary of the passage of the Government Performance and Results Act in 1993 – is now becoming taken for granted as a way to do business in government. I recently interviewed a subcabinet agency head, and he noted that he thought his agency had now gotten to the point where briefings for new leaders would include the organization’s major performance measures, the targets for performance improvement in those measures, and the historical performance over the last few years. This is a revolution in government, and a good one. Performance measurement has progressed during one Republican presidential administration and two Democratic ones, suggesting that management reform really benefits from bipartisan support.
As we approach sequestration, it is a fair question to ask whether agencies can afford to spend any of their scarce resources on measuring their performance, rather than just performing. My answer would be that in tight budget times, performance measurement is more necessary than ever, because we have to try to get better at what we do not just by throwing additional dollars around, but by improving efficiency and effectiveness. By helping organizations learn how to do a better job, by focusing them on the most-important activities, and by motivating people to try harder, performance measurement is a powerful tool for lean times.
Posted on Feb 22, 2013 at 12:50 PM1 comments
At a recent Kennedy School faculty meeting, our dean gave a report on a meeting he had attended with other senior university administrators from the United States and abroad. The topic that attracted the most interest in the discussion was the spread of online university education via so-called “massive open online courses” (MOOCs). These are online lectures, so far mostly but not exclusively in the sciences, given by professors who are very talented as teachers. Most are open for viewing for free, but in some cases one can pay a fee in order to take an exam and get course credit. (Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry on MOOCs.)
The dean's basic point was that administrators agree the move towards MOOCs is going much faster than anyone expected, and an upheaval in higher education may be around the corner. Universities are, the view seems to be, about to be swept up in technology-induced change in a way that first became familiar when MCI long distance challenged the old AT&T, and that we have seen more recently with newspapers and music. Rather than trying to fight this, Harvard and MIT have joined to form EdX to promote and develop MOOC’s.
Of course, nobody knows what form all of this will take, but there are a lot of fascinating questions. The more material is taught online, the less demand there will be for traditional professors. There is going to be a lot of demand for people to grade exams (except possibly in math or science, where exams can often be graded by computer). At some (or maybe many ) universities, there will be demand for on-site education to complement online lectures -- at Harvard we like to think that many students will still want the kind of in-person experience we offer – but the kind of classroom teaching will be very different from what it is today.
The price pressures that online learning produces will be welcome to all those who worry about the affordability of higher education, but one issue will be the pressures to eliminate the “cross-subsidy” of scholarly research by other revenue sources for universities, and the danger this poses for our country’s foremost position in the world as a source of research. (Somewhat relatedly, the easiest way for universities to raise money from donors is to build buildings, and the “overhead” part of the donation currently helps pay for other activities at the university – yet online education may produce a decline in demand for buildings and hence in universities’ ability to raise money from donors.)
This movement is clearly a survival threat to lower-quality universities that are charging a lot of money for lectures that probably aren’t as good as the ones online. Some will survive by offering degrees to people who can’t pass online course exams, or through the opportunity for young people to socialize or watch football – though in both cases, likely at a much lower price point. At the other end, clearly there are far more students who could pass Harvard exams than there are students who get admitted to Harvard. What will happen to the credentialing and sorting function of universities?
I will confess that my first reaction in listening to my Dean’s discussion was that maybe I should get ready to retire earlier than I expected. We’ll see. Meanwhile, watch this space for updates.
Posted on Feb 20, 2013 at 11:26 AM1 comments