Who Knew Yahoo Was a Sideshow?
Just about a year ago, the first-time CEO of a failing Silicon Valley tech company gave the media and flex advocates a unique Valentine—one that would dominate flex-related headlines, conversations, and blogs for much of 2013. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo gave us a neatly packaged “ban on telecommuting.” And it seemed that a million home-based workers of the world rose up in response.

We published lists of personal and business gains; claims of productivity levels any company would envy; and comments on collaboration tools that made not being there seem almost more desirable than being co-located. As the dust settled, months of speculation began about whether Yahoo’s step backwards into the office was a turning point or a tempest in a teapot for the relentless telecommuting trend.

Even the Feds Get Telecommuting
The answer has turned out to be much more teapot and a lot less turning point. One example: I write this blog post in my cozy home office near Washington, DC, surrounded by 12″ of snow. DC is a city notorious for seeing 2″ of snow produce paralysis and more than a million home-bound and idle federal workers.

Not so these days. The Federal government has embraced telework. A small initiative has spread to major agencies. Hundreds of thousands of GSA, Agriculture, Treasury and other teleworkers are “at work” in this disruptive 2014 snowstorm. The leaders and managers of the federal government have their eyes on business continuity, productivity and employee engagement—not on the Yahoos of the world.

And the private sector has put the pedal to the metal, expanding flexibility for many business reasons. No doubt some business execs have used the telecommuting ban to reinforce belief in their old habits. But even a glance in the rearview mirror shows that Ms. Mayer’s edict has proven a tiny eddy in the transformative wave of where, when, and how Americans work. She was great media, but poor prophecy.

But Did We Miss a Significant Turning Point Nearby?
While we and the media were trying to read the flex tea leaves in Silicon Valley, a far more significant event was taking place just up the freeway. David Chiu, the third-term President of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had become advocate and architect of a very different approach to flexibility: the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance (FFWO).

Rather than using his power to ban flexibility in “Silicon Valley North,” he was surveying the globe to find a model that would make his city a more flexible, family-friendly environment. David Chiu was a successful businessman before becoming an effective political leader. He offered flexible schedules to his staff with family needs, and saw great commitment and productivity results.

Seeing Flexibility as a Social Good, Not an Antisocial Bad
He did not see flexibility as a narrow program for employee and company only. As he confronted a gentrifying city in which family flight was becoming a serious issue, he wrestled with the factors that drove people away or kept them—what might be called social recruitment and retention. So he and the Board addressed affordable housing and health care, quality education and accessible housing—and the nature of work. The city had low unemployment, but not the scheduling flexibility—or predictability—that was compatible with the demands of family life.

Rather than ban telecommuting in one small company, he set out to mandate the “Right to Request” any flexible schedule for all San Francisco employers with 20 employees or more. Quietly, persistently, effectively he took the general approach of the UK, Australia, and others; skipped the Congress that had been deadlocked on this approach for a decade; secured business community neutrality on the ordinance; and in October 2013 saw SF declare potential national policy on flexibility in one high-visibility city.

If the media noticed, it apparently yawned. Perhaps as the initiative rolls out, as Supervisor Chiu runs for a seat in The California Assembly, as this approach spreads across California or to other cities, we’ll hear as much about FFWO in 2014 as we did Yahoo in 2013.

Perhaps the Lessons of Obamacare Will Make the Difference
The impact and legacy of FFWO depends on companies learning to do flexibility well. As we were reminded in the healthcare website debacle, whatever the value of the law, a botched rollout is lethal.

One of the constraints in San Francisco’s approach is that the Board passed a law, a city commission will do some publicity, and the agency that enforces workplace issues (minimum wage, health coverage, etc.) will fine process violators starting in 2015. But who will help a reluctant and inexperienced business community—especially many thousands of small businesses—master the FFWO process and the implementation of diverse schedules? Who will innovate the schedule “predictability” for hourly workers?

Enter Ask4Flex, a Website That Works
While most of us were only able to be voyeurs and distant commentators in the private Yahoo process, supporters of 1 Million for Work Flexibility and others can participate more actively in this significant, public San Francisco initiative. We can follow, publicize, and assess the value of this approach. And we can point colleagues, clients, and friends doing business in San Francisco to resources that can help them with superior implementation.

My firm, Rupert & Company, has drawn on our decades of experience installing the flex request system and forms, to develop a website that supports the city and its employers in pursuing a path of FFWO compliance or collaboration to build broader and deeper flexibility. You can learn more about the San Francisco project and the FFWO by going to our website www.Ask4Flex.org and seeing how we seek to strengthen a socially beneficial outcome for flexibility in San Francisco.

Effective implementation will require the work of thousands. Let’s join in.

photo credit: thinkstockphotos.com