For more than a decade now, I've struggled to define what fuels the most sustainably productive work environment — not just on behalf of the large corporate clients we serve, but also for my own employees at The Energy Project. Perhaps nothing I've uncovered is as important as trust.
Much as employers understandably hunger for one-size-fits-all policies and practices, what motivates human beings remains stubbornly complex, opaque, and difficult to unravel. Perhaps that's why I felt so viscerally the shortsightedness and futility of Marissa Mayer's decision to order Yahoo employees who had been working from home to move back to the office, and Hubert Joly's to do the same at Best Buy.
Here's the problem: Employees who want to game the system are going to do so inside or outside the office. Supervising them more closely is costly, enervating, and it's ultimately a losing game. As for highly motivated employees who've been working from home, all they're likely to feel about being called back to the office is resentful — and more inclined to look for new jobs.
At its heart, the problem for Mayer and Joly is lack of trust. For whatever reasons, they've lost trust that their employees can make responsible adult decisions for themselves about how to best get their work done and add value to the company. Distrust begets distrust in return. It kills motivation rather than sparking it. Treat employees like children and you increase the odds they'll act like children. You reap what you sow — for better and for worse.
As an employer, I stay focused on one primary question about each employee: What is going to free, fuel, and inspire this person to bring the best of him or herself to work every day, most sustainably? My goal is to meet those needs in the best ways I can, without undue expense to others.
In the end, I'm much less concerned with where people do their work than with the value they're able create wherever they happen to do it. The value exchange here is autonomy (grounded in trust) for accountability.
As CEO, I myself work from home for an hour or two in the mornings most days because it's quiet and free of distractions. I find it's the best way for me to get writing and other high-focus activities accomplished, and I know that's true for many other business leaders.
One of the senior members of our team is a 35-year-old woman with three children under the age of nine. She lives 90 minutes from work. I'd love to have her at our offices every day, because I enjoy being able to interact with her around issues as they arise. I also just like having her around as a colleague.
But to make that possible she'd have to invest three withering hours commuting each day — a huge cost, not just in time, but also in energy, for work and for her family. Demanding that she make that trip every day would only prompt progressive fatigue, resentment, and impaired performance.
Instead, we settled from the start on having her come to the office two days a week, which is when we schedule our key meetings. Those days also provide time for spontaneous brainstorming of ideas across the team.
Another one of our team members, a woman with two teenage kids, travels frequently in her role. When she gets back from trips, she typically works from home the next day — both to recover, and to have more time for her family.
Two of our other staffers — one male and one female — work mostly at the office out of personal preference, but also have young kids and work from home on some days when their kids are on vacation, or get sick.
Two younger, married team members recently requested permission to move to Amsterdam for eight months — for no other reason than they wanted to experience another culture. For a moment, I bridled. But since technology makes it possible for them to do their jobs from anywhere, we were able to make it happen. They agreed to work during our regular office hours, and to visit our office for a week every two months. So far it seems to be working seamlessly.
Every one of these people is highly productive. I do have moments when I find myself wishing all of our team members were in the office more, and even wondering what they're doing when I haven't heard from them.
When those feelings arise, I take a deep breath and remind myself that my colleagues are adults, capable of making their own decisions about how best to get their work done, and that all good relationships involve some compromise.
It gets back to trust. Give it, and you get it back. In over a decade, no employee has ever chosen to leave our company. The better you meet people's needs, the better they'll meet yours.