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Leading from the top – why flexible working is a cultural issue

By Practice Group Leader, Employment

Many organisations pay lip service to the issue of flexible working. Procedures are in place, but are often left gathering dust, whilst business continues with a “jacket on the back of the chair” culture of presenteeism. Not many employers are brave enough to actually speak out against flexible working, but Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! has done exactly that by insisting that employees attend the office and do not work from home. Having promised to change the culture of the organisation to make the company “the absolute best place to work”, few employees would agree that this is a change for the better.

In a memo addressed to all staff, HR has said that the company needs to “be one Yahoo!, and that starts being physically together.” The decision is a radical departure from working practices in the technology sector which often allow employees to work from home on a regular basis. It is expected that as a result of these changes many employees will be forced to move house or resign, the company had previously embraced flexible working. The decision has been justified by HR saying that "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings". 

No-one would deny that interaction with colleagues is an important part of most people’s working life, but does that really justify all employees being in the office 5 days a week at set hours? Meetings and discussions can be arranged sensibly to ensure cohesion and surely any organisation should be measured on output rather than hours in the office? Recently the Law Society’s President, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, criticised the lack of diversity in the management of law firms and citing lack of flexible working – again law firms could be looking at value delivered rather than hours worked, as a better performance indicator. 

Ms Mayer’s move, which has been criticised as a return to the 1980s, reminds us that an endorsement of flexible working really does come from the top down. If managers up to board level are seen to work flexibly themselves, this engenders a culture which often attracts a wider talent pool and enables more female employees, in particular, to achieve a sensible work-life balance. In turn, this can lead to increased productivity, time is not wasted commuting. 

The fact that Ms Mayer has made this decision is disappointing to many who had heralded her appointment (she was pregnant at the time), as a step forwards for women and a role model for younger women in technology wanting to reach the top. Such attitudes compounded with high childcare costs are attracting female talent and will not help in the bid to increase the number of women achieving board positions. 

If you would like to know more about your rights regarding flexible working or discrimination please contact us.

By Deborah Casale Employment Solicitor.

Employment Law, Flexible Working

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