- About Us
Want Productive Employees? Treat Them Like Adults
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.
Leave a comment
My favorite boss had employees work a 9 hour day, but with the choice to start as early as 6 AM or as late as 9 AM, and then leave as early as 3 PM or as late as 6 PM. Lunch was from 11:30 AM to 1 PM. This schedule provided amazing flexibility to parents, those attending classes, and for those who like to exercise at various times during the day. It also allowed for commuting around rush hour. We all had 9-11:30 AM and 1-3 PM for meetings, synergy, team work, etc. Personally, my favorite job had me working 9 AM to 3 PM, lunch with different teams throughout the week, and on-call nights and weekends with only occassional calls requiring me to come in.
@ 2013/04/11 08:00:11 PM
Excellent response to what I hope is not a developing trend in the US. I'm fortunate to work in a company that thrives because it's leadership understands the power of engaged employees. With almost half of our team living in other states and most others with an hour or more commute, our leader's trust that we will deliver AND thrive is a major reason people flock to interview for our Energy Management team. Thanks for continuing to lead the charge in this field.
by T. Broslawsky
@ 2013/03/23 12:10:54 PM
Today’s socio-economical global business climate only underlies the need for a changing workplace, which logically leads to a new organization culture involving employees to work from home. Even if it’s not an instituted company policy, in today’s “always-connected’ world, employees already are expected to be on the job before and after their day at the office. Some people would say that in many jobs there is no clear distinction between home and office. Thanks to cellphones and wireless connections, it is possible to be tethered to the office and expected to respond to work calls and e-mail messages every waking hour.
@ 2013/03/22 12:18:35 PM
Could not agree more. The proof is in your zero attrition - no one can argue at that fact. Begs the question - what jobs do you current have open?
by Simone Fetherstonhaugh
@ 2013/03/20 06:47:59 PM
I think treating employees with dignity and respect, and respecting that they are humans beings with needs and desires goes a long way towards making them happy and productive. It sounds like you are doing good work with that. Do you feel that part of what makes this possible is hiring adults who behave like adults in the first place?
by James G
@ 2013/03/18 12:26:28 PM
James - Yes, taking into account the attitudes of your potential employees before you hire them is a big factor. That goes for employees at all levels.
@ 2013/03/18 05:28:12 PM
I actually don't think - given the tone of the memo, and my word-of-mouth information about the cultural transformation being attempted at Yahoo - that Y's decision is about supervising people. I agree with you that treating people like children is counterproductive. I think the goal of this "everybody back in the office" move is to increase communication (because face-to-face communication is richer than remote) and allow Yahoo to evolve with minimum splintering, and they just need everyone in as close proximity as possible. It does cost energy though. I have a full-time-in-the-office gig at the moment, which requires teh 'expense' of a couple of hours per day commute. I also (like many people) draw energy from my home surroundings, so I don't have access to that resource in the office. I think likely the best energy balance is a split attendance - two to four designated 'onsite' days (so everyone gets to see each other) plus one to three 'telecommute' days.
by Amy Lightholder
@ 2013/03/15 05:09:16 PM
I couldnt agree more. I have personally experienced the negative side of this situation, where employees were treated like children and literally being policed as to their whereabouts, daily activities and the time they got into the office in the morning and the time left they left in the afternoon, and no trust from the employer. RESULT: demotivated unproductive staff, and high staff turn-over.
by Trevor Momeen
@ 2013/03/15 02:54:39 AM