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Yahoo boss's self-serving delusions about office life

Interaction between colleagues generates and develops ideas. What seems odd is that in the era of great technological advancement, we still get executives who assume that this should involve physical co-location

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A multinational internet corporation demands its staff... in the office?
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David Bolchover
On 5 March 2013 09:55

“This little box will be your home for sixty hours a week,” the cartoon character Dilbert once informed a new colleague. “It comes with an obsolete computer and a binder about safety hazards. Your challenge is to look busy until someone gives you a meaningful assignment.”

Dilbert will doubtless have been chuckling to himself last week when the management of the internet company Yahoo sent a memo to staff requesting that all employees who work at home should henceforth relocate to one of the company’s offices. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the memo explained.

Not nearly as much as they are in an office, I feel. This directive, a product of a complex combination of naivety and self-interest which defines the modern-day corporate executive, will inevitably result in huge net waste – countless hours spent in a mélange of traffic jams, pointless meetings, trains, frantic image building and non-work-related internet searching.

Let’s look at the available statistics. According to 2012 research by the Centre for Economic and Business Research, the average UK worker believes that 2 hours 39 minutes of their time in meetings every week is wasted. Meanwhile, TUC research from the same year reports that the average UK commuter spends 53 minutes travelling to and from work each day, rising to 75 minutes in London .

But when they are back at their desks, boy do they make up for lost time! Well, that’s the picture many people would like to project to others about themselves: a narrative of busyness and indispensability, unthinkingly accepted by media outlets which constantly regale us with stories of burnout, stress and overwork.

A recent study by Joseph Ugrin of Kansas State University and John Pearson of Southern Illinois University found that between 60 to 80 percent of the time that the average worker spends on the internet at the office has nothing to do with work. Given the centrality of the internet in any information-gathering exercise, that proportion can be assumed to translate into many hours a week for most knowledge workers.

"Older people are doing things like managing their finances, while young people found it much more acceptable to spend time on social networking sites like Facebook," said Ugrin.

Cyberslacking, as it is known, is the modern way not to work while at “work”. But long before the internet, office workers found other methods. Disappearing for a meeting with “a prospective client”, visiting the dentist, long toilet breaks, frequent coffee machine visits, or the overlong and unnecessary internal meeting have been utilized for decades in the constant quest for work avoidance.

So how can we explain Yahoo’s memo? The first reason is a naively optimistic view of what office-based workers get up to. The company has 11,500 employees. It is highly doubtful whether the people at the top of the company can achieve a clear view of what their direct reports on the next level below them are doing on a daily basis, let alone understand what those at the grass roots are really up to, even if they are sitting in the same building.  

A 2010 Economist Intelligence Unit survey found compelling evidence of executive gullibility. The proportion of C-suite executives who think that employee engagement in their company is “much higher” than in rival companies is three times greater than among those outside the C-suite. Bad news, as is often said, does not easily travel upwards in corporate bureaucracies.

The second reason, less obvious but equally powerful, stems from a natural desire to sustain a system and culture which have served those who now occupy the top positions (and those who now aspire to those top positions) extremely well.

Measuring the individual impact of knowledge workers, and distinguishing their relative performance, can be extremely difficult. What is likely to propel people to the summit, therefore, is a general impression gained by skilful self-promotion – acting and speaking the part – and shrewd selection of personal alliances.

Homeworking strips away the importance of office politics, and focuses more attention on the challenge of calculating the actual contribution of employees. This presents a real threat to the status quo, and to those who prosper within it.

Interaction between colleagues does of course help to generate and develop ideas. What seems very odd is that in the era of great technological advancement, we still get executives who assume that this productive communication should involve physical co-location.

But as the American author Upton Sinclair once put it, "it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

David Bolchover is the author of "The Living Dead: The Truth About Office Life"

Read more on: John Pearson, Joseph Ugrin, Centre for Economic and Business Research, Dilbert, Yahoo, and The Office
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