In today's workplace culture wars, HR has to help manage tech changes

Credit:John L. Beeman via Wikimedia Commons

Late last week, Marissa Mayer finally talked about her decision to force all Yahoo's employees into the office. Speaking to a room filled with human resources professionals at the Great Place to Work conference in Los Angeles, Mayer talked about her decision publicly for the first time since a leaked Yahoo memo created a firestorm of controversy and an unprecedented national dialog about remote work programs, the challenges telework poses for both workers and managers, and what employees really want when it comes to flexible work options.

Repeating a sentiment delivered by Yahoo's public relations staff, Mayer said that her decision was based on what was "right for Yahoo right now." She also reiterated that her intention was not to spark a debate saying that her position "was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative."

Mayer agreed with a widely held assumption that "people are more productive when they're alone," a common argument for supporting telework, flexible workspaces in or out of the office, and the anywhere/anytime reality associated with enterprise mobility. She qualified that statement, however, reiterating the belief that she took with her from Google to Yahoo, saying of workers that "they're more collaborative and innovative when they're together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together."

The work-from-home decision has been just one of several that Mayer has made at Yahoo since taking the reins of the troubled company last year. One of her biggest priorities has been to reshape Yahoo's corporate culture, consciously or unconsciously making it more like the culture that she helped created at Google. Other culture-shifting decisions preceded the work from home ban including offering employees free food as incentive to stay in the office and the decision to ban BlackBerry smartphones, a staple among Yahoo's employees at the time, and replace them with iPhones and Android handsets. Less public moves have been to revamp and streamline a range of company policies.

Developing or changing a company's corporate culture is no easy task. It takes skill, tact, and a particular kind of personality to be able to shape the character of an entire organization successfully. Along with developing and enforcing policies, many human resources directors consider a key part of their role to be guiding and guarding the values, temperament, and work experience of their companies on a day to day basis. As a result, many HR professionals are custodians of important institutional knowledge.

At times of great change within a company or across an entire industry, an experienced HR staff can ensure that a company survives a transition with its culture and institutional knowledge intact even if there's significant turnover and restructuring.

It's hard to imagine a more significant cultural shift in any organization than the emergence of mobility, BYOD, mobile apps, and cloud services. For the first time in history, individual workers can choose the tools that they want to use to get their work done. In picking their own devices and apps, workers are building a personal toolkit and unique workflows. In integrating those apps and tools with cloud sharing services, they are creating collaborative toolkits. 

IT leaders often feel like the point people for the technological change that mobility and BYOD are creating. There's plenty of truth in that: IT is still the gatekeeper of corporate data, and IT pros are uniquely suited to securing data, troubleshooting problems, and educating users about traditional workplace technology and the growing set of personal technology making its way into the office.

When you step back and look at these changes as cultural shifts, however, it becomes clear that IT alone isn't well suited to helping most organization these cultural changes. For that, IT leaders need partners within a business - and those partners need to be skilled in adapting a company's culture, developing and implementing policy, and engaging with managers and team members about their needs and challenges.

To put it simply, IT needs HR as a partner and that partnership needs to form as soon as possible.

There are several conversations that IT and HR executives need to have about the changing type and role of technology in the workplace.

  • How much control and flexibility should individuals have in choosing solutions? How much should team leads or middle managers have?
  • How can HR help IT facilitate the tool selection within each department to ensure high-quality, secure, and cost-effective options are recommended and considered?
  • What technology options should be made available for new hires? Should existing employees receive the same options, broader options, or even fewer choices?
  • Beyond a security perspective, are there uses of personal technology that should be prohibited such as adult content on a personal device? How will violations be addressed?
  • Should telework and flexible options be offered to all employees, to none, or only to certain workers or divisions? If only to some, to whom and why them but not others?
  • Should employees be expected to respond to emails or other communication outside the office or outside normal business hours? Should they be expected not to respond outside of work? Regardless of the choice, what's the rationale behind it?

This is a relatively short list of issues that IT and HR should address together, but it highlights some of the core issues that go beyond technology.

The core question comes down to this: What company policies - hiring, time and attendance, procurement, travel, compensation, promotion, and every other kind - are affected by BYOD, enterprise mobility, and solutions like apps and cloud services that are sold directly to employees? For each policy impacted, does the policy need to be revised and, if so, what is the best approach to bringing that policy and today's technology into harmony?

That's a question IT can't answer alone.

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