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Fighting Backwards Company Policies

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Often the most interesting aspects of employee workflow are not procedures that are highly efficient but subtle workarounds. We received an email with an offhand comment that demonstrates this issue perfectly.

In the following message, two employees at different companies are coordinating their mutual involvement in a non-profit committee:

Thanks. I’m not supposed to log-in to gmail at work, so I’ll need to take a look at our group and calendar soon to get a handle on it, then promote it to everyone via e-mail.

In one sentence, the anonymous person sending this email illustrates the startlingly backwards culture of the typical employer. She expresses two core ideas:

  1. “I feel comfortable using company email to discuss our volunteer project.”
  2. “I am not permitted to use company resources to access our volunteer project.”

These contradictory statements make her office sound like employee satisfaction is pretty low. It’s like being allowed to use company postage to request mail-order catalogs for personal use, but not to actually submit mail-order forms. How could official policy be so insane?


© Flickr user Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

If we read the email carefully, however, possible rationales start to emerge. The key phrase is “I’m not supposed to log-in to gmail.” Maybe Google’s Gmail product has been deemed a security risk. Or perhaps management feels that people who are using the service are more likely to be wasting time. In any case, the author of the message seems to think she might get caught on Gmail. Perhaps the IT department has monitoring software, or maybe another employee could happen to walk by her cube.

None of these possible explanations are very reasonable. If Gmail is dangerous or problematic, why not have the technical staff install Internet filters? Any time people feel they are “supposed” to act in a certain way, they probably harbor at least a small amount of resentment. Why can’t we be trusted to be responsible?

There’s a lesson for management in this story. If you want to provide exceptional customer service, emulate companies like Nordstrom and try to keep policies simple which will have a positive effect on worker productivity.  If you’re an employee who writes emails that say things like “I’m not supposed to do this at work,” consider a policy change of your own: don’t give out your work email to personal contacts. Or, think about finding an employer which is more interested in productivity growth than monitoring behavior.

We’ve all been in offices where micromanagement runs rampant. Perhaps in certain situations it’s called for, but on the whole, it’s usually a negative management style. After all, if employees don’t feel empowered, are they really going to be comfortable coming forward with novel ideas? And it’s rather hard to feel empowered when your phone calls are being monitored, or you fear checking in on your personal emails since someone is watching your internet history. Yes, all employees should remain focused during the day, but it’s very unlikely that during a five minute break to check in on emails, an entire day of work is going to be ruined. And if your organization is really one where those sorts of policies are needed, the employees shouldn’t fear retribution, rather they should understand why the policies are in place and thus have a motivation to stick to it.

Ultimately, the words we use to describe our limitations at the office are often the most important part of our workflow. Make smarter processes that empower your team to have the freedom to accomplish more. Consider contacting our small business consulting firm to learn more about this. We love to help!

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