How can we create new patterns of inter-relating at work?

interactionI have been interested in the furore that has followed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banning workers from working from home.  I’ve also read that Hubert Joly, the new chief at struggling retailer Best Buy has also just scrapped their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for their corporate employees.  Corporate staff who, until now, have been allowed to telecommute, as long as they got their results, will now be required to work at the corporate headquarters, though some managers will still have discretion to accommodate some workers.  Joly’s intention is to shift the culture to one of greater accountability.  A Best Buy spokesman said, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”

Think about it for a minute.

Like many, the initial assumption I leapt to was that here were those awful authoritarians: new in the job, trying to make their mark, trying desperately to cling to hierarchical power and going about it rather clumsily.  Isn’t the modern thing to show respect to workers and give them autonomy?  As long as they achieve their outputs, we don’t have to regulate their movements, right?  On further reflection and having read about the possible motivation behind the Yahoo ban, I can see it might make some sense.  What if, say, she was looking at Yahoo as a systems thinker and taking action on the system?  What if, say, she wasn’t trying to do the old-fashioned thing of managing the people?  I enjoyed the sub-heading of an article in the Guardian about Mayer’s decision: “Marissa Mayer shows she knows little about managing people with this offensive memo to Yahoo employees.”  Perhaps.  Perhaps she actually knows a lot about managing people and knows that it’s a waste of time.  Perhaps she knows that in order to get greater effectiveness in an organisation, you actually don’t spend your energies on managing the people, but you work on the system.  Maybe, as another Guardian article sets out, she is focussing on what matters for Yahoo at this moment in time and space.

Think about it.

HR consultants and originators of ROWE Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson wrote in an open letter to Mayer, “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a baby sitter versus a 21st century CEO that can lead a company into the future. Or did you?”  Good question.  Again, let’s suspend judgement and consider the shift in policy.  Could be that Mayer is one of those Industrial Age clock-watchers.  Might be that she is looking to make a change to Yahoo’s ecosystem in order to get more creativity and innovation going.

Might be….?

I don’t have any special insights into what Mayer was thinking, but I watch what she is doing and am reminded that in a world still dominated by the command-and-control, someone who is acting like a systems thinker might sometimes look as if they are doing the old thing.  That is because we haven’t enough “systems thinking stuff” going on to know what that actually looks like.  How, for example, would we know if a manager’s tantrum comes out control-freakery or quality-freakery?  Looks like the same tantrum, might use some of the same shouty words, but might actually come from a “we are doing crap work” mindset, not a “you are an idiot and I need to whip you into place” mindset.  I’m also not suggesting that Mayer is some kind of enlightened goddess; she is as flawed as the rest of us and perhaps her way of going about the shift in working practices was a little graceless.  I only want to say, let’s suspend our judgements until we examine a little more closely what might be behind her bold move, and observe if the shift in policy does, indeed, generate greater innovation and collaboration at Yahoo.

Interestingly, in a recent interview, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh said:

“Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favours for each others because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.”

So am I.  I know from experience that I get a real buzz from real-life interactions and that in most cases, I find a lost mojo when I’m doing my thing in the room with someone who’s available to me and we are giving each other our attention.

One of the things to be mindful of is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go.  Just because whatever it is that works for Zappo’s and Google is good for them, it doesn’t mean that other businesses should necessarily follow suit.  A good systems thinker will become intimately familiar with their system and do what works for that system.  One of the exceptions that Guardian writer takes is that having to work in the office is inconvenient.  She describes how she manages her time and gets her articles written.  All good, I say.  Once again, it’s important to look at the details of what is happening.  In the case of a solo journalist, perhaps it would seem madness to compel her to sit at a desk in an office when she could produce quality journalism sitting at home.  If the job was to co-write an article, however, I wonder if being side-by-side with the co-writer might produce even better quality work than each one working remotely, emailing the work back and forth.  Just an idea.  The point is that we need to know what the work is…..and to consider how best to get it done.

Think about it….

Google’s workplaces are famously enviable, but I would suggest that it’s the smart thing to do to focus on the purpose, not simply on making a “fun place to work”.  How did Google’s offices happen?  Someone designs them.  Someone engineers the physical spaces and what is in them.  To make it a fun place to work?  Well, yes and no.  I would suggest that that someone did not simply design something that is “fun” for fun’s sake.  That kind of workplace is often mocked in the popular press or programmes like The Simpsons as funky and cool, but there is a hint of “…but they probably don’t do much work there”.  I would suggest that some good thought has been given over to the design of the system at Google: the working processes as well as the community that will carry them out.  What does a business like Google require?  Creativity and innovation.  “The philosophy is very simple,” Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Manhattan engineering director said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.”  In order to get this, what would be the optimal way of engineering these things?  Draw on nature, be conscious that systems are self-organising and thrive on variety, and that, at the same time, they can be nurtured.  The ecosystem within which such fruits could flourish can be designed.  Google started with a philosophy.  They have a purpose and a way of thinking as to how to make that purpose come to life.  They are enviable because they have been designed with the work in mind, not on fun; I believe the “fun” is, in one sense, a by-product.  In any case, as Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School says, “I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”

According to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative.  He says “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”  That, to me, seems slightly simplistic, but I get the point.  Also, Tony Hsieh seems to find that productivity and working together in a shared workspace are linked, so there you go.  In any case, you don’t simply institute a ROWE because it’s what people want and seems to be one of those lovely perks that makes people happy.  You do something like that if it helps to create the ecosystem that best nurtures the work.  You craft a system that is best designed to meet the purpose of the business.

All of this speaks to me because at the heart of the work I do is sociometry.  The term was coined by Dr. J.L. Moreno and its basic tenet is that “the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to achieve that outcome.”  The sociometry, or quality of relationships, within a business, affects the system and the system affects the sociometry.  It’s a reflexive relationship.  Sociometry and systems thinking are intertwined.  I encourage managers to see their role as supportive of those they purport to manage, rather than as controllers.  I encourage them to see their role as ensuring people have the resources, information and relationships they need to get on with their work.  That last bit sometimes challenges managers because as John Seddon describes, we train managers (if at all) to be good people managers.  When I say “ensure people have the relationships they require”, I don’t intend they manage people or try to keep them happy.  Odd, huh?  I intend the kind of picture that Google have: to engineer and nurture a system which facilitates people interacting with each other.  In an older article, I suggested that a good leader is a good sociometrist.  Yes, leaders (people) need to develop their relationship capabilities.  They also need to develop the bigger picture abilities that facilitate productive and purposeful working relationships to flourish all over the place.

Some have misinterpreted sociometry as “developing skills to get on better with people so I can get them to do what I want them to.”  No.  Sociometry is an active exploration of the inter-relationships that exist and an uncovering of what is not seen between people, so that they can, together, create new patterns of behaviour with each other.  The result is that people work better together.  I believe that working on the sociometry is part of working on the system.  One of the insights that came to a client of ours recently, as a result of our work with their sociometry, was that they need to redesign their physical space so that they get more of the interactions that lead to the kind of innovation that sits at the heart of their business.  In their commitments to action, I see a mirror of the kind of community that Google have created.

In the modern economy, where much of the work that we do is knowledge based, relationships and networks are core.  Google’s approach is to engineer serendipity.  I enjoy oxymorons.  Like spontaneity training.  How can you possibly engineer happy accidents?  Well, we can’t make happy accidents happen, but we can nurture the ecosystem within which they are more likely to happen.

Attending to the interpersonal also cannot be underestimated.  Part of this is examining how people relate to each other and what “elephants” might sit in the room between them.  Dealing with these “elephants” is at the heart of sociometry.  People learn about themselves and the dynamic of the groups to which they belong.  They cooperatively learn how to grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of modern business life.  This occurs when a skillful sociometry practitioner assists them to discover what is happening between them and work out new structures of relating.

If creativity and collaboration are core to the business, we can craft workplaces where people are drawn together and interact about the work they are doing.  We can design spaces and ways of working where people are more likely to be stimulated to innovate together.  Maz Iqbal, in a comment on a recent article of mine wrote, “The pragmatist changes the structure of the system so that the desired behaviour is called forth.”  Yes.  He also provided a link to the work of Jeppe Hein, an artist who has created some wacky park benches which he designed to encourage more exchange between users and passers-by, giving them a much more social quality.  As well as engineering the physical environment, we can also “engineer” the interpersonal by attending to the sociometry.  Both of these are conscious systems interventions, both add value and set a business towards achieving its purpose.

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John Wenger

I am Director of Quantum Shift Global, based in London. I apply a cutting edge human technology to assist people to make the changes in behaviour and attitude that they and their businesses need in an increasingly "social" business world.

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