It could have all been avoided. When angry Yahoo! employees leaked an internal memo “asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices”, it touched a nerve. Bloggers wrote about CEO Marissa Mayer’s insensitivity and hypocrisy. Other CEOs publicly disagreed with her. People took it personally, taking sides on Twitter and Facebook.
But the issue for companies, including Yahoo!, isn’t really about working from home. It’s about how people relate to each other at work. And, whether or not employees go to the office, something they all should do is work out loud.
The Yahoo! memo
The memo sparked debates - on employees’ rights, Yahoo!’s culture, management style - that lead to heated opinions but no answers. And yet the memo did include a few things that are simply incorrect. In two statements about improved collaboration and communication, the conclusion is that being in the same office is the only way to reach their goals.
“...communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”
“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
And that's wrong. Not only isn’t “side-by-side” the only way, it isn’t even the best way for a company the size of Yahoo!.
The limits of “side-by-side”
Of course, physical proximity is important. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s have shown have shown that the best predictor of collaboration is physical distance. But the effect of proximity is strikingly limited. In “Influencer”, for example, they summarized research that studied Bell Labs scientists:
“The best predictor was...the distance between their offices. Scientists who worked next to each other were 3 times more likely to discuss technical topics that lead to collaboration than scientists who sat 30 feet from one another. Put them 90 feet apart, and they are as likely to collaborate as those who work several miles away! The probability of collaboration sharply decreases in a matter of a few feet.”
You can only be “side-by-side” with a few other people. If, like Yahoo!, you’re 11,500 people spread across 4 continents, “side-by-side” has no meaning.
For people more than 90 feet apart, office designers try to increase the chances of the “hallway conversations” that Yahoo wanted (or the “unplanned collaboration” Steve Jobs strove for). Research supported this.
“Proximity also facilitates informal conversations which can serve to enhance social relationships and work coordination.”
That assertion, while true, doesn’t scale well. Yes, you may meet someone in the cafeteria. But for companies of Yahoo!’s size and number of buildings, the odds are abysmally low that you’ll bump into someone with relevant work interests that you know well enough to talk to.
Not “side-by-side” but closer nevertheless
In a sense, Yahoo! was right...10 years ago. In the 1980s and 1990s when researchers examined the benefits of proximity, they also examined the use of online tools at the time.
“There are at least two aspects of informal communication which might mediate its effects on work and social relationships: its richness in terms of visual, audible, and other sensory cues, and its frequent, opportunistic nature.”
10 years ago, they found the tools lacked the richness and serendipity associated with physical proximity.
Today, though, social platforms and communications tools address many of those issues. You might still get more out of working side-by-side with another individual. Yet, across a company, the best collaborative environment today isn’t physical but virtual.
”It’s expensive and often impossible to reduce the physical distance, but you can increase the digital propinquity – the kinship between employees – by encouraging the use of a social platform at work.”
When employees are connected with a social platform and are working out loud - making their work observable and narrating their work - you dramatically increase the chances of people coming into contact with other relevant people and work. You have a much better idea of who is contributing and how those contributions are valued. And you eliminate the need to physically oversee people to ensure they’re working.
Not a substitute but a complement
Using a social platform and working out loud doesn’t impose a location strategy or office design. If a firm feels they need people to come to the office, fine. If they want to spend a lot of money on a new atrium design to encourage serendipity, fine.
But, whatever they do, every firm should create an online environment where people can come to know each other wherever they are - across the hall or across the planet. When companies do that, they can spend more time on innovation and efficiency and less time debating HR policies in public.