Silicon Valley is nothing short of an economic miracle. Over the years, it has become a veritable hotbed of innovation, the birthplace of exciting new technologies, and the home to numerous startups that have grown to become multibillion-dollar companies. Currently, the region boasts the highest concentration of high tech employees of any metropolitan area and the highest average salary for those workers. And there’s one other important thing about Silicon Valley -- it’s also a place where some say or sell one thing but do another. Let me explain.
Many of those multibillion-dollar businesses in Silicon Valley sell the latest in high tech products that help us to telecommute, collaborate on virtual teams, and stay connected to our families, friends, and co-workers no matter where we are. But some of those very same companies restrict their own employees from using such technologies. Hewlett Packard, for instance, won’t allow much of its IT staff to .... Yahoo made news earlier this year with its leaked memo that told employees they could no longer work from home. And a top executive at Google recently made the following remarks to a group of technology entrepreneurs i...: “How many people telecommute at Google? ...Our answer is: ‘As few as possible.’”
Certainly, many firms in Silicon Valley (and elsewhere) have built beautiful office parks and company complexes that entice workers to be physically present at their desks, often logging long hours. And perks like on-site daycare, dry cleaners, and well-equipped gyms have become increasingly commonplace in the Valley. Some companies have even begun to up the ante, offering free housecleaning and last-minute assistance in finding babysitters. Of course, I have nothing against employee perks and companies making the work environment as comfortable and attractive as possible. But I do have a problem squaring this approach when the goal is to keep employees spending as much time at the office as possible, particularly when a company forbids its workers from telecommuting yet sells the very tools that enable it. To paraphrase a well-known saying, some companies won’t eat their own dog food.
And these behaviors doesn’t stop with employees. Have you heard of the Waldorf School of the Peninsula? It’s an elite private school in Silicon Valley that basically forbids the use of computers in the classroom until at least the eighth grade. (And even from the eighth grade on, it allows just their limited use.) Instead, teachers rely on traditional blackboards, chalk, pencils, and paper as their primary tools. And now here’s the really interesting thing. According to a New York Times article, many top executives and employees of Apple, Google, HP, and other Silicon Valley firms send their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. Do those parents know something that the rest of us don’t?
By now, most of us have become aware of the perils of computer and technology addictions. Certainly, many sociologists like the noted Sherry Turkle have written extensively about the harmful effects of people spending too much time virtually connected, immersed in the use of digital technologies, and too little time in face-to-face human interactions. Yet, when used properly, technology can also be an invaluable aid, helping to improve our productivity, enhancing our ability to communicate with one another, and increasing overall effectiveness. And that’s the part that those execs at Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and other companies don’t fully grasp.
A few years ago, I had a meeting with the CIO of a major European bank who was interested in my work on virtual distance. When I met with him, he had an entourage of a few direct reports and an administrative assistant. After our meeting, those staffers were responsible for following up with me on various items that we had discussed. It dawned on me then that for that particular CIO (as well as for many top execs), the way in which they do their jobs hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, even given the dramatic advances in digital technologies. Of course, executives might use e-mail, videoconferencing, and texting, but they are typically still insulated by their staffs, such that they’re often not fully aware of how people in the rank-and-file are actually getting work done.
And that’s what I call “the leadership paradox.” It’s a common syndrome whereby senior execs are making rules and policies (like a ban on telecommuting) for their employees when they themselves don’t completely grasp exactly how those workers do their jobs. And that disconnect can be dangerous, leading to an increase in the affinity distance within a company. In an earlier blog, I wrote about one of my clients – a large insurance company – that forced many of its employees to work at the corporate headquarters. Although the physical distance of that organization shrank, its overall virtual distance ballooned, leading to one major project falling way behind schedule, ultimately costing the company millions of dollars. The lesson here is that the leadership paradox can lead to executives making damaging and costly corporate policies -- something that some leaders best beware.