Managing the Future: From Factories to Flexibility

Monday, May 13, 2013

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting earlier this spring, she sparked a lively conversation about the tension between efficiency gains and the inherent value of in-person collaboration. Many industry observers raised concerns that the technology giant was eliminating important gains in employee rights, sending modern companies back to the management structure of the early twentieth century. This debate followed Mayer to a recent Wired conference where she emphasized that the Yahoo move was “the right thing for us right now.”

Mayer was reacting to a perceived decline in collaboration at Yahoo, attempting to restart the Yahoo brand with a radical shift in corporate policy. Such efforts have become increasingly common in the wake of the recession that began in 2008, as many American businesses have been forced to take extreme measures to stay in business and retain their industry power. In the history of management, these measures have important implications for the future of corporate structure and the personal connections emphasized in recent decades.

When Henry Ford developed the assembly line in 1913 to reduce the cost of producing his Model T, he created a working process in which many tasks came together to form an integrated and highly productive approach to manufacturing. This ‘factory model’ would dominate American business for the next 100 years, both in true factories and in the broader business world. Like their manufacturing counterparts, managers in numerous business settings used a top-down approach to leading employees, fostering a tightly controlled environment in which employees focused on one task or specialty, rarely deviated from well-established processes, and were evaluated on cost and meeting quantifiable goals.

With the rise of rapid technological change in the late 20th century and the demand for innovation, this approach was called into question. The employee went from being a cog in the wheel to an important asset and was encouraged to:

  • Focus on more than one area of specialty and work in cross-discipline collaborative teams;
  • Strive for creativity and innovation to impact the bottom line and sustain long-term growth;
  •   Work through iterative processes they are constantly innovating.

Managers are now charged to treat employees as colleagues, to listen carefully to their needs and to act more like a facilitator than order-giver. In turn, employees are measured by individual initiative, collaborative skills and innovative thinking.

Of course, this is not a new idea. Back in the glory days of the factory approach, Thomas Watson, the man who turned IBM into a global force, said:

"I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people."

Mayer’s shift away from telecommuting appears to be based on her interpretation of how best to harness the energy and talent at Yahoo, but may not be reflective of overall industry trends. A recent post by the Wall Street Journal revealed that for smaller companies, a bump in productivity was seen with the rise in telecommuting. As technology increasingly enables these types of choices, managers are faced with new questions of corporate policy and personnel development.

Seasoned managers know that there is no one-size-fits all approach to managing – that they have to be flexible enough to adapt to both the working environment and the people that move it forward.  Yet, in the absence of such a formula, what metrics should managers look to to advise the decisions they make about workforce policy?  Is it possible to find a balance between technology-enabled productivity gains without sacrificing collaborative problem solving in in-person work environments? 

If you work in a hybrid workplace, we would like to hear about what works well for your organization!

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