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Flexible work environments: When do they work?

ERE reported today that Dell is moving to a highly flexible/work from home culture. Dell wants to have up to 50% of eligible employees to have flexible schedules.

Having flexible/work from home cultures have been shown to offer many benefits. Stack Overflow makes it clear that their remote devs often work more hours than those in their office.

However, it’s clear that all is not well in flexible work land. In the past year, two major workplace champions of flexible workplace environments–Yahoo and Best Buy–have both ended their flexible work environments. Both organizations have made it clear that they are in turnaround situations, and that their extraordinary circumstances require an ‘all hands on deck’ culture where everyone is available for collaboration in the office.

What to take away from this? Is a flexible work environment something that can only be applied to a fully healthy company? How does an organization know when it’s appropriate to move to that culture–and that managers understand how to lead employees in that type of environment?

And conversely, what is the threshold of corporate performance where you decide you can no longer afford the apparent luxury of a flexible work environment? How do you retain employees who were hired under that culture (and may have looked upon it as a highly compelling reason to accept that position over another)?

I think if employees have clear line of sight of how their performance impacts company goals and financials–and also understand how to effectively work with other internal stakeholders remotely to get work done–flexible work environments can be very successful. But if there is consistent underperformance–combined with low employee engagement and an overall sense of distrust of employees by executive leadership–it will not work.

What have your experiences been with flexible work environments? Were they effective?


TGIF! And Australia Recap

Hello and happy Friday!

I’ve been home a week and am still recovering from jet lag. A few stats from my trip:

  • 2 new continents visited
  • 25,625 total miles flown
  • 11 flight segments
  • 8 airports
  • 3 currencies
  • 2.5 time zones + DST/No DST = I nearly made a minor scheduling error once (driving from one Australian state that didn’t observe DST into a neighboring state that did and not realizing there was a time difference)
  • Nearly 2000km driven in 3 different rental cars
  • 4 Australian states visited (One was only an airport layover, but we were there for close to 3 hours. I’m counting it.)

A few observations:

  • We’re spoiled in the US by the ubiquitous access to fast wi-fi. Australia is primarily ADSL for residences and small businesses which = slowish download speeds and tiny upload pipes (256k in many cases). Internet is also often expensive–up to $40/3 days with a 2gb limit at one hotel!
  • I decided not to use my mobile data/minutes unless I absolutely had to. It was odd not having a constant data connection, especially in a place where you regularly have a lot of questions about your environment to which you’d like answers (“What is the exchange rate today? What is that landmark over there? Is that spider/jellyfish/ant/snake/plant going to kill me?”). I don’t think I had realized how much I take that always-on availability to information for granted. Withdrawl was a bit rough at first, but after a few days the eye twitching subsided.
  • Australians are generally incredibly nice and outgoing. Almost everywhere we went, we had great interactions with people in shops, restaurants, coffee houses, hotels, and even airports. (With one exception, Australians proved that airline ticketing and gate staff don’t have to be awful–but perhaps that has more to do with the fact that perhaps Australian travelers aren’t mostly awful?)
  • There isn’t a lot of apparent diversity in Australia. Government statistics show that of ‘overseas born’ residents, nearly 30% come from either the UK or New Zealand.
  • There is a very serious coffee culture in Melbourne, but you can find excellent coffee in Sydney and other towns as well (especially where Melburnians have set up shop, like Noosa).
  • Australians (residents of Victoria in particular) are mad about horse racing. We happened to be there during the Melbourne Cup, which is like the Kentucky Derby x1000. Melbourne Cup day is a public holiday in the state of Victoria (where it’s held). More than 100,000 people pack into Flemington racecourse, and you will find a good deal of the rest of the country comes to a halt to watch the Cup as well. It was quite the spectacle. There is also a tradition of women wearing fancy dress and outlandish hats (we even saw this in Cairns, Queensland on Cup day).
  • Thanks to Australia, I have a new favorite summer beverage: Lemon Lime and Bitters. Essentially a lemon lime soda (think Sprite) mixed with Angostura bitters or its equivalent. I’m not generally a soda drinker, but this is a delightful mix of citrus, sweetness, and bitter. Best with a squeeze from a fresh lime wedge(…and I think the right gin would improve it too).

Without further ado, a few more pictures:

Sydney Circular Quay, Opera House and CBD taken from the Harbor Bridge

Daintree Rainforest, NE Queensland. This is taken on Thornton Beach south of Cape Tribulation. You can see how the rainforest meets the ocean

Koalas at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the largest koala sanctuary in Australia

A wall of the outer Great Barrier Reef, taken at Hastings Reef

Stack Ranking: Does it work? Is it healthy?

Yes, I’m late to the game on this (in a number of ways). I was on the first of many planes home last week when it was announced that Microsoft was killing its employee performance stack ranking system. The announcement sent shockwaves through the tech, HR, and business news channels.

Stack ranking is simple in theory: Employees are assigned ratings, and those ratings have to fall within a predefined bell curve. Most companies use what is known as the 20/70/10 model:


The idea is that most performers–the 70% in the middle–fall around the mean; solid, if not exceptional. The truly exceptional performers are the 20% to the right–and are incented accordingly. The left 10% are those at risk–whose work performance is poor enough that they should be on a performance improvement plan (or, in the days of Jack Welch’s GE, fired).

Stack ranking at MS was a key way of being able to differentiate the level of reward for performers of different levels once MS’s stock price leveled off about a decade ago. Unlike a smaller, pre-IPO startup company–or a post-IPO company still in rapid growth mode–a mature company, with a stock price that isn’t moving upward, cannot incent employees using stock options.

Unfortunately, this practice has been singled out by many employees as being damaging to Microsoft’s ability to consistently innovate and deliver game-changing products and services. Vanity Fair’s piece on Microsoft stated that every current/former employee interviewed for the article named the stack ranking process as a key driver as to why MS had lost its way. Stack ranking created a culture of individuals focused on championing their achievements over the the outcomes of their team–and with Microsoft attempting to pivot to a more integrated services model, that cannot continue.

Living in MS’s backyard, I know that MS employees and managers have gamed the stack ranking system. Employees that know they are a high performer in one org don’t take positions in a new org–where their knowledge & skills might be crucial–because they are too well positioned within the stack rank of their current team. Conversely, I’ve heard of managers who actively recruit a low performer from another team to help push their incumbents up in the stack rank.

Is stack ranking all bad? Marissa Mayer has instituted a fast-track quarterly performance review process @ Yahoo and is using stack ranking to weed out employees identified as low performers. She is using the process to quickly change the performance culture. Thus far they have eliminated 600 employees–so she is seeing results. Is it the right way to achieve rapid change? That remains to be seen.

Happy Friday! More to share from Australia & HK.

Greetings to the 4 people still paying attention to this zombie blog!

Sorry for the radio silence the past two weeks. Ubiquitous internet access is not something you can count on in Australia, and when you do find wi-fi don’t expect it to be quick. That meant photo uploading was not an easy task. But since I’ve returned, I wanted to share a few highlights with you.

After Sydney, we ventured to Far North Queensland in the NE corner of the country to visit the Daintree Rainforest.


And yes, the Wet Tropics is quite rainy. Especially in Spring (rainy season). They hadn’t had much rain for the prior 3 months, apparently.


From there, we went South to Cairns, one of the primary jumping-off points to see the Great Barrier Reef.


That’s Michelmas Cay in the center. The shadow areas underwater are reef sections. This is the inner reef; we also snorkeled on Hastings Reef which forms part of the outer reef. It was unbelievable, truly a bucket list experience.

You do have to exercise caution in the water in Far North Queensland, though:



They aren’t kidding about either of these. We saw a BIG croc crossing the Daintree River on a car ferry about 10 feet from the starboard side. Apparently they are quite common in the rivers, and will make their way out to saltwater shores as well. The marine stingers come in a few different shapes and sizes. The Irukandji, a jellyfish that is no bigger than a cubic centimetre–meaning you wouldn’t see it in time to avoid being stung by it–which is bad, as it will put you in the hospital (often as a best case scenario). Fortunately, we avoided both.

We saw some sleepy Koalas (and a few not so sleepy ones) at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane:


And visited the Easternmost point in continental Australia located in Byron Bay, NSW:


We returned to Melbourne to wander the city’s famous Laneways, this being Degraves St:


And finished our trip with a night in Hong Kong en route home.


That’s it in a nutshell. Amazing trip–I feel very fortunate to have a partner in crime who loves to experience new people and places even more than I do, and will push me outside my comfort zone. Because that’s when you learn the most about another place and people–and about yourself.

Back to the regularly scheduled posting next week. Have a great weekend.

November 2013
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