As an evangelist for open organizations and an ambassador for open principles, I am fully aware of the challenges organizations go through when they're trying to effect lasting change. Changing deep-rooted organizational culture should not be taken lightly. It's something people should weigh very carefully, debate fully, and then embrace wholly.
Once your organization "steps through the gate" and adopts an open mindset, reversing the flow of power that's unleashed is difficult. Organizations that embrace openness shift their attention from costs to the value side of doing business. In other words, they begin seeing employees as assets capable of delivering value to the organization rather than as cost centers that must be strictly managed.
Because open organizations are built on trust, accountability, transparency, and empowerment, actually reversing course and creating closed environments can be detrimental to an organization's long-term success. Certainly, in the short-run, we know that up-ending an open ecosystem diminishes morale, trust, and (even more so) productivity. As a result, organizations that tighten their workers' freedoms ultimately lose market share—and their best employees.
Take, for instance, the 2013 case of Yahoo ending their work-from-home policy for more than 500 employees. Public fallout and ridicule from the decision was deafening. While the number of employees who ultimately left Yahoo as a result of the decision is a bit sketchy, we know that many were not very happy with the decision. We can also look toward noted remote-work pioneer IBM, who recently announced to more than 5,500 marketing employees that it was moving away from remote-work and had decided to "co-locate" its U.S. marketing department of about 2,600 people to one of six different locations: Boston, New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin, and San Francisco. This means that individuals who normally worked remotely or from another office must now move closer to one of the six offices—or resign. This move has many employees furious. They're abandoning work on long-term projects and looking for others jobs.
In my book, The Open Organization, 2nd Edition, I write about leadership intervention within the confines of an open organization. We know that in the context of an open ecosystem when leadership intervenes in decisions made by their followers, they begin to erode the spirit of openness and thereby create anger and diminish trust. This is not to say that leadership intervention is unwarranted or should be avoided at all costs. This means that when a leader intervenes or holds veto over a group decision, that it should be done sparingly and the leaders must be prepared to fully explain the reason for their override. Leadership's role in the context of an open system is protecting its First Principles and the governance models that define its openness.
When we "walk back" freedoms we give to people, we begin to break down the morale of the organization. This affects productivity and the overall happiness of the workers. As we have seen with IBM, many employees noted that they stopped focusing on long-term projects, as they were concerned with their job stability. When we remove these freedoms from our workers—when we're clearly focused on costs rather than value—we end up creating an exodus.
We saw this happen when Zappos adopted holacracy. We watched it happen when Yahoo ended work-from-home and we are beginning to watch valuable and talented employees leave IBM.
Sending the wrong message
When we move an organization from the freedom of open to a more rigid, inflexible structure, we send the wrong message to our employees.
In the case of the work-from-home policies being taken away, we're really communicating that we are not going to trust employees to do their work unless they're located some place where we can monitor them. While I readily admit that working from home is not for everyone, for those who thrive in this environment, taking it away is tantamount to a demotion.
Fix what's really broken
When I read about organizations that are walking back their work-from-home policies, I can't help but think that it was their policies and not their people that were broken.
While I understand that Yahoo and IBM are ending work-from-home policies in an effort to increase productivity, collaboration, and innovation, the resulting effect appears too frequently to be the opposite of what they set out to do. In the end, it is not the collaboration or even innovation that is broken. What we are really experiencing is an organization with ineffective processes and policies for remote work. Bringing employees back into the office will not fix the problems these organizations are experiencing. While there are many reasons why a work-from-home policy might fail, here are few of the more common ones:
Organizations fail to properly onboard individuals for remote work. Working from home is not for everyone. It requires focus, organization and technological skills among others. Organizations that properly onboard remote workers will make sure that the new hire understands the organization's missions, vision, and processes. They communicate these often.
There is a lack of connectivity between the remote worker and the organization. Staying connected is extremely important. Communication should be conducted via video conferencing (face-to-face), and in person at on-site meetings. Companies offering work-from-home policies should remain purposeful in their desire to keep connected with their distributed workforce. Out of sight should not be out of mind.
Companies don't properly and consistently instill their culture in their workforce. The organization must continually instill cultural values in their employees. They can do this by clearly articulating the company purpose, values, and mission.
Organizations do not give the employees the autonomy and empowerment they need to get their work done efficiently. This inhibits productivity and certainly gives the impression that the employees are goofing.
Proceed with caution
Organizations that are contemplating ending open organization programs (such as work-from-home, flexible hours, and others) should proceed with caution. The moment the organization empowers employees, they open a Pandora's Box that's difficult to close without damaging the fabric of the organization. Open ecosystems are extremely rewarding, and, when done right, are effective and innovative. Moving an organization to an open ecosystem is not to be taken lightly. For those that operate in an open modality, going backward is not always the right thing to do.
Stay the course. Fix real problems. Trust your employees to do the right thing.