The Bottom Line on the Great Telecommute Debate (and other employee incentives)
The media has been over-saturated lately about the decision of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to ban telecommuting. Some believe it was warranted because the data told her so, others are convinced it’s the worst thing she could do for morale in a company that is already suffering. Still others believe it’s the beginning of the end for Yahoo. Regardless of which camp you are in, the important discussion here is really “How can you incentivize and reinforce employee behavior while still getting their best performance whether in the office or at home?”
Before we talk about the employee, it’s important to first look at managers. Does your organization have more managers who barely meet monthly goals or meet them at the last minute or more who consistently get above and beyond performance? Do employees have many ideas for improvement or just do what is required. Can you see employees volunteering to help managers and peers when needed?
An effective manager is one who brings out the best in those they lead. They create a work environment in which employees want to advance the mission of the organization, every day. To do this, managers must have an understanding of behavior so that they can consistently get more of the behavior they want and less of the behavior they don’t want. They must understand how to appropriately deliver positive reinforcement to their team in a way that returns deliberate and consistent performance on the part of the employee. Plain and simple, they must know about the science of behavior.
You see, for those who understand the science of behavior, and how to successfully apply it in the workplace, issues of whether or not employees work at home or in the office won’t become front page news. Managers will know, with certainty, that their employees are giving their best. Employees will know with certainty that their managers believe in their skills and trust that they are taking the actions necessary to deliver their best. It has been proven that employees, who are positively reinforced for their performance, will consistently deliver high performance (i.e. Discretionary Effort.)
But be careful that you understand how to use positive reinforcement. There’s a proverb that says, “Praise makes good people better and bad people worse.” You must be careful what you reinforce because you are sure to get more of it. Many of the problems at work, at home and in the world at large are caused by positive reinforcement. When given at the wrong time for the wrong behavior and in the wrong way positive reinforcement creates problems. Unfortunately most managers are not sensitive to these variables.
Managers who bring out the best in their employees act more like coaches and mentors than bosses. Measure the success of managers and supervisors by the number of successful employees that they coach. Create a workplace where the most satisfaction a manager gets day to day comes from accomplishments of front-line employees. As CEO, listen for stories and anecdotes told by managers and supervisors of something that one of their employees did that was exemplary. This should be a daily occurrence.
One of the ways executives and managers misuse positive reinforcers is by not using perks, benefits and other forms of potential reinforcers contingently. By that I mean for the good of the employee and the organization, the more these incentives are made contingent on some job or organizational improvement, the more improvements you will have.
Working at home is a classic example. It is not unusual that a financial analysis shows that it is beneficial to the organization to have certain jobs done at home. It requires less office space and often requires less equipment and supplies. Once this determination is made, employees who perform those jobs are asked to work from home. The problem comes when a poor or marginal performer is assigned to work at home because I can assure you that a poor performer in the office will be a poorer one from home.
From a behavioral perspective, even when it is a benefit to the organization for an employee to work at home, it turns out better for the employee and the company if the move is considered a privilege and not an expectation or entitlement. Let them earn the privilege. Set criteria for working at home. Develop criteria for maintaining the privilege. That way, the very fact that one is working at home is in itself recognition of good performance.
While I recognize that not every job can be done at home, I also recognize that not all employees want to work at home. Therefore the culture should demonstrate that whether at home or in the office, those who do the best work get the most benefits, have the most flexible schedules and the most latitude in how their work is accomplished.
People respect most that which they earn. When people earn, they are confident and competent. Reinforcement that is given but not earned creates dependency and entitlement.
In the end, there should be no debate about telecommuting or other employee incentives. If managers perform in a way that brings out the best, and employees earn the right to work from home by consistently performing, then the skies the limit on the potential for both employee and employer.