Archives for category: ramblings 2013

Futures Rambling # 68

by Laurie Aznavoorian

It was quite refreshing at last week’s Corenet summit in Shanghai to eavesdrop on conversations about something other than ABW; unfortunately, the topic that captured people’s interest and undeserved media coverage was nearly as yawn generating and misguided as the whole foolish ABW debate. What was the topic that has jaws wagging? The edict passed by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer that Yahoo employees could no longer work from home.

In the event you were in a coma, Mayer has insisted all Yahoo employees go to work! Good Lord, what a shock. It has proven to be so controversial in the US that a national debate has ignited over workplace flexibility, family and women’s rights. The debate came dangerously close to eclipsing more entertaining stories such as Dennis Rodman playing basketball with Kim Jong Un or the ‘budget sequestration’. That’s the new name for the abyss entered when you go over a fiscal cliff.

There is great speculation as to why Mayer made this decision and what she intended by insisting all 5000+ employees of Yahoo physically go the Sunnyvale office in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some have suggested the real catalyst was correcting abuses; it seems 200 employees work full time from home. Some of them have proven to be expert multi-taskers, not only do they pick up a yahoo pay check, but run their own companies on the side. Others say the move was designed to build moral and improve employee motivation, as well as place a focus on innovation and collaboration. Most likely all of these contributed to the CEO’s decision.

The indisputable facts are the company missed two of the biggest trends on the internet: social and mobile, its home page and email are losers, Facebook and Google have trounced them when it comes to selling advertising and the stock price is in the crapper. It is understandable that morale is low and that the company’s culture could use a reboot. Apparently it is so bad that employees won’t even admit working for Yahoo when they go to Friday night beers at the Silicon Valley geek bars.

What is disappointing is many of the sentiments that have emerged in this debate are unreasonable, one is the link between a proactive decisions made by a CEO to reverse a downward trajectory and an attempt to right the wrongs plaguing the business, with an all encompassing value judgment on flexible working and women’s equality. These two are not related; allowing the company to fail would be far more alarming than asking 200 people to come to work and one could argue company insolvency would have a far more devastating impact on 5000 employees and their families.

It is only mildly ironic, and doesn’t bode well for Mayer, that she a nursery built next to her office in the Sunnyvale headquarters. This affords her the luxury of having her infant son by her side, releasing her from the angst many working mothers experience. Not many employees would have the latitude to impact facilities in this way, not to mention the funds. She did pay for it herself; she has accumulated a sizable nest egg from her past job as a Google executive. Is it too much of a stretch to compare this to extravagances of other CEO’s whose club memberships and golf games go unquestioned?

A host of arguments both for and against working from home surrounds this debate. According to a Stanford University study performance improved by 13% for one business who allowed employees to work at home, few can deny the convenience of wandering downstairs to work in your undies, or beat the commute times. Some managers claim having employees working at home is better because it forces them to set clear goals and review progress more frequently eliminating both employee and manager from becoming delusional over work quality and what has actually been accomplished.

Additional benefits include retaining talent that may not have the ability to physically go into the office every day, or who choose to live in remote locations. Most arguments against home work stem from an inability to compartmentalize and create appropriate separations between home and work and a not unfounded fear that ‘good work’ is tough to accomplish when employees are watching reruns of Green Acres, putting in a load of laundry or changing nappies.

The downfalls of working at home can often be overcome with the right technology, personal habits and the right company mindset. Often overlooked in the debate about working at home is the need for everyone in the team to communicate online, even if only one team member is remote. This ensures the locus of control and decision making is outside the office. Otherwise the remote worker will be left out, have minimal input on decisions and feel disconnected and the company will run the risk of becoming politically unbalanced.

Most of us crave the social interaction going to work brings and make the decision to work at home only on occasion: to complete a task requiring special focus, care for a sick child or meet the cable guy. There are few managers (including managers at Yahoo) who prohibit some degree of personal choice and mobility if it helps an employee balance personal and work needs; however, there still are many managers who will not allow their employees these freedoms.

Sadly, the uproar over Mayer’s decision steers us away from the real issues of integrating work and family life and addressing the impact that it has to economic, social and political outcomes. Working from home plays a role in retaining employees in a shrinking talent pool and solves other productivity problems. There is no question that increasing the range of possibilities and choice for workers and weeding out managers who are too lazy, or selfish, to allow their employees some degree of choice will help society, the economy, our families and communities.

A friend and ex employee of a multinational financial institution chimed in on the debate stating “Why do they think telecommuting was a humanistic vision in the first place!  It was an economic decision to reduce real estate costs.  Now the corporations all have excess real estate (at inflated rents that make buying out leases less than great for the balance sheet) – so they can call all the sheep back to the pen without great expense and cull the herd after appropriate observations.”

That view, while being admittedly cynical, is not entirely wrong and serves to remind us of the context in which Mayer’s decision should be considered. What we should be asking is as the CEO of a faltering company in need of cultural transformation, was it an appropriate choice to make? Many I’ve talked to in the past weeks say yes, they covertly whisper that it is better to keep people together and on the same page, especially in quickly changing times, they are too scared to say this out loud for fear of being tarred with the same brush as Mayer.

Today organisational trust in a company is built from the bottom of the company up; it has evolved from the dictatorship models of the past to one of leadership. We look up to our company and its leaders and formulate trust bonds based on their reaction to external forces, such as the GFC, an oil spill or simply negative PR. We trust our leaders if we agree with their reactions and actions, consider them fair and in alignment with what we believe are the company values and of course our own personal values.

If Mayer demonstrated a failure in leadership, it had less to do with her decision which most think will help the company out of its dire straits and more to do with communicating its context to both employees and the media. Had this been done, it is possible a whole lot of worry and boring debate may have been avoided; we could focus on the issues of work / life balance and affordable child care and have gone to Corenet and talked about other more salient topics like the Kardasians.

Sources:

Chaey, Christina; “Marissa Mayer, Yahoo, And The Pros and Cons of Working From Home” Fast Company Online; March 7, 2013

Wakeman Cy; “Is Yahoo Right to Ban Working From Home?” Forbes On line, March 7, 2013

Essig, Todd; “Bodies Matter: The Inconvenient Truth In Marissa Mayer Banning Telecommuting At Yahoo”

Friedman, Stew; “We Are All Part of the Work_Life Revolution” HBR Online; March 15, 2013

Fullerton, David; “Seven Great Reasons To Encourage Working Remotely” Fast Company; March 1, 2013

Greenfield, Rebecca; “Marissa Mayer’s Work-from-Home Ban Is Working for Yahoo, and That’s That”; Atlantic Wire; March 6, 2013

Larson Leslie, Peterson Hayley and Reuters Reporters; “Yahoo! Boss Marissa Mayer Under Fire for Building Personal Nursery Next to Her Office – Before Telling Employees They Can NOT Work From Home; Mail On-line February 27, 2013

 

 

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Futures Ramblings # 67

THE POWER OF WORDS 

Lance Armstrong told Oprah: “I looked up the definition of cheating and the definition is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe’. I did not view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” Well that is one creative interpretation of the word! Perhaps during Lance’s exploratory foray into the dictionary he should have continued on further to the letter D to investigate the meaning of delusional, or backtracked to B’s to peruse the definition of bully.

Back home in Australia the former NSW Resources Minister Ian Macdonald was called a crook at a corruption hearing investigating his granting coal exploration licenses to Labor Party mates. In exchange Macdonald luxuriated at their ski resort in Perisher. Words were exchanged at the hearing with Macdonald’s political career hanging on the description of “very confidential” versus “not entirely confidential”. The argument enraged the hearing commissioner so much he was forced to tell Macdonald to stop his shilly shally.

This all pales in comparison to the confusing answer US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton provided Senator Ron Johnson when he and others gave her a grilling regarding the death of four American diplomats in Bengazi. People thought she said:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

What she really said was “get off my back you ignorant republican ninny.” You would have known that if you heard her tone of voice and could speak American like me, one never forget their native language. That being said, it has been nearly a decade since I lived in the US and my ability to translate may be a bit rusty. The word ninny is quite easy to confuse with the slang word for male genitalia.

Words are powerful, inspiring and easily misinterpreted. One obvious reason is misuse, we often use the wrong words and sometimes people make up words like shilly shally or argie bargie, particularly if they’re in politics. Exacerbating the challenge is the evolution in the meaning of words over time. Compare the description of the phrase far out or sick with someone over 50 to that of a 19 year old.

The words we use in business have evolved as well; new buzzwords enter and depart the business lexicon reflecting the social trends and sentiments of the times.  Recently two articles came across my inbox highlighting this evolution. In the first the author suggests words to avoid, particularly when describing ourselves. They rightly point out word choice is critical and makes a first impression; therefore, to avoid being seen as a complete tosser they recommend removing the following words, listed with the author’s rational, from our vocabularies:

Innovative – if you are innovative don’t say it prove it.

World Class – who defines world class, if it is just you don’t use it.

Authority – if you have to say you are, then you aren’t.

Global Provider – only to be used by those selling goods and services worldwide.

Motivated – never take credit for things you are supposed to be, or supposed to do.

Creative – everyone uses this word to describe themselves, it has lost its impact.

Dynamic – it means vigorously active and forceful is that what you really are?

Guru – self proclamation means you are trying too hard to impress others.

Curator – libraries have them, tweeting things to people does not make you a curator.

Passionate – too over the top, use focus, concentration or specialisation instead.

Unique – you are unique, but your business probably isn’t.

Incredibly – if you must use over the top adjectives spare further modification

Serial entrepreneur – be proud if your just an entrepreneur

Strategist – most strategists are coaches, specialists or consultants. Do you make something new?

Collaborative – okay to use as long as you’re not really forcing others to do something they don’t want

Last week I went to a pitch along with several of my esteemed colleagues and we used most, if not all, of these words with the exception of serial entrepreneur and curator. We may have even used some twice. Perhaps it was a fluke that we were able to convince the potential client we were a world class organisation with global reach, comprised of motivated people who in their own right are gurus, clear authorities known for their creativity, innovation and unique dynamic passion.

The language we use and words we choose influences how we think, feel, act. This is the thesis of the second article “Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life”. In this missive we are told to eliminate the word YES and only use it when it reflects our true desire. Use the word WORK to describe our individual contribution rather than what we do from 9 to 5. Additional new meanings are defined for: boredom, anxiety, conflict, failure, success and procrastination.

Call me a cynic, but I have difficulty in seeing how redefining a conflict as an opportunity for vulnerability or success as a way of being, living, feeling and achieving that is defined by you could radically improve my life. That does not mean to imply choice of words isn’t important and potentially detrimental to one’s wellbeing. For instance using the word bomb at luggage screening in the airport, or saying just about anything about the Prophet Muhammad could be quite damaging.   

There are several words that really annoy me bantered around in the design world that I wish we could get rid of for once and all.

The first is guess. Not a bad word on its own but when used in the context of explaining a design or process to a client it is woefully inappropriate. The definition is to form an opinion of from little or no evidence. Telling your client you “guess” or “suppose” your solution is appropriate does little to instil confidence in our abilities to advise them. If the pilot on your next Qantas flight said “I guess we are going to Perth”, you would run not walk to Virgin.

The second word that aggravates me is aspiration. It’s meaning a strong desire to achieve something high or great in itself isn’t offensive, it is in fact quite uplifting. However, in the context of describing a workplace an individual’s desire, hopes and dreams regarding the workplace are too shallow  and in the land of rainbows and unicorns for me. A workplace needs to be described in a business context, what it needs to survive not what its occupants aspire to.  Once a foundation is set other more ethereal ideas, which are also important, can be incorporated. They are not a starting point.

Finally can we all stop saying actually, this adverb means in act or in fact. When we use the word it is generally in the right context, it is simply tragically overused. Many designers use the word actually with the same frequency in a sentence as a bogan using expletives. “The design is actually a reflection of the actual way we actually work today. We actually spend very little time at our desk and actually practice highly mobile working styles.” Seriously, we actually do that?

When I hear designers talk that way, I actually tune out and find myself actually making ticks on my notepad to actually keep count of how many l times the designer says actually. I guess that sound mean and I suppose it is actually highly unproductive, but I guess you could say I was doing research. I suppose my aspiration was to one day write a Futures Rambling on the topic.

 

Sources:

Haden, Jeff; Stop Using These 16 Terms to Describe Yourself; LinkedIn, January 17, 2013

Parker, Kathleen; Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of Benghazi; Washington Post, February 08, 2012

Rae, Amber; Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life; Fast Company; January 30, 2013

Salusinszky, Imre and Shanahan, Leo; Gloves Come Off at ICAC: Macdonald, You’re a Crook; The Australian; February 13, 2013

Happiness January 25, 2013.