Microsoft’s HR director Rose Clements has a very particular philosophy about “work”: the word is a verb, not a noun, and should be considered as a thing you do rather than a place you go.
It’s a philosophy that now filters through the culture of the organisation and one that’s changed Microsoft’s physical office space where employees — from the managing director to the most recent graduate — have no assigned desk.
Following the much talked about news last week that Yahoo had issued a mandate banning employees working from home, Women’s Agenda spoke to Clements to find out how a different technology company handles flexible work arrangements.
While Clements wasn’t prepared to comment on the Yahoo decision, saying she couldn’t possibly have enough insight to understand what was behind it, she noted that Microsoft Australia relies on “activity-based working” in which employees can get their job done from wherever they want.
Clements won’t use terms like “telework” or “work from home” as she believes they’re too limited in describing just what activity-based working actually means. She says too many organisations look to experiment with flexible work by simply extending the range of flexible options they currently have.
“We think about work in a very personalised, customised way that centres around the work that needs to be executed as part of the employment arrangement. But that’s pretty much where we set the boundary,” she says.
“We’ve untethered our expectation that work can only be done in an office type of environment or even the home environment. Work can be done on a train, in a cafe, or even on a beach.”
Clements says 100% of Microsoft employees work flexibly in some way, with only those who’ve been there a number of years having ‘start and finish’ times specified in their employment contracts (a clause that’s no longer required).
It wasn’t an overnight change but rather a cultural evolution. As such, the physical changes to Microsoft’s offices – which include a variety of open spaces and meeting rooms — were implemented long after the cultural shift had occurred. “We started examining things like what flexibility meant in its current form,” Clements explains on how the process started. “In doing so, not very proudly when I look back at it, we fell into the same trap that I think a lot of organisations do which is to think ‘right we need to be more flexible!’ and that we’d just extend the flexible work options we had.
“Even if we did extend the flexible work options, it’s still an inflexible and finite list … We threw the list out the window and invited team members and managers to tell us how, if they could change the workplace, what it would look like and they would like it to work.”
While Microsoft offices now reflect the activity-based working mantra — with a variety of different spaces provided to allow employees to arrive when they want and plug in — Clements says the physical change didn’t take place until the cultural shift had occurred. “We changed our attitude and we changed our behaviour a couple of years before we changed our physical space.”
So do employees ever take advantage of such an open environment?
Clements doesn’t think so. It’s a system that relies on empowerment, accountability, well-trained people managers and “treating employees like adults”. She explains that the organisation has standard performance management procedures just like anywhere else.
“People intend to be successful at their job. They want to end each day knowing it was a great day and they did some great things. They’re not going to self-sabotage their ability to work successfully,” she says. “They don’t get up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to undermine my employer and I’m going to make mistakes’. Quite the opposite. People want to be successful.”
“We still hold a level of accountability for the outcomes and deliverables of the job. There is no reason to flout the system,” says Clements.
Clements says the shift in work culture has delivered plenty of benefits including improved productivity, employee engagement and reduced office costs.