Marissa Mayer is taking a lot of criticism for her recent decision to end telecommuting at Yahoo.
After reviewing VPN logs to see how infrequently Yahoo employees were checking in, she made the decision to compel all employees to work from the company’s head office in Sunnyvale, California. This decision must have been difficult for her on several fronts. As one of only a handful of female Fortune 500 CEOs, she is being criticized for failing to stand up for women in the workplace who rely on flexible work arrangements to successfully balance their personal and professional responsibilities. In addition, she is facing criticism from public figures (such as Richard Branson) who think she is not ‘keeping with the times’ and that her decision reflects ‘old school thinking.’
As someone who appreciates the occasional opportunity to work from home, Mrs. Mayer’s decision surprised me. In addition, as someone who leads a non-profit organization composed of a team that is scattered across North America, I witness the benefits of remote collaboration (whether via the phone or internet) on a daily basis.
However, as someone with a keen interest in human behaviour, I can’t help but agree and admire her decision.
Face-to-face interaction has taken a hit since technology has stepped in and blessed us with a multitude of new ways to communicate. In an office setting (as I witnessed earlier today), instant messaging someone sitting five steps away seems to be the preferred method of asking questions rather than walking to their cube to speak to them. Google Hangouts, Skype, and other video-based platforms help to curb this resistance, but avoiding seeing someone and speaking to them in person has never been easier.
And that’s a shame, because impromptu conversations can be a waste of time or can be a source for inspiration and new ideas. I recently read a great book by Jonah Lehrer titled “Imagine: How Creativity Works”, in which he describes the office environment at Pixar and how cross-pollination between personnel of different departments was encouraged, if not forced. Having a single bathroom on the main floor was one way that this was done – getting people to move around invariably led to bumping into old friends and sharing updates. In addition, instead of having staff sit with their teams or departments, they were spread out among personnel with different backgrounds, the idea being that socializing their current projects with people with different perspectives would uncover new ideas. Clearly, their overwhelming success is no fluke.
Injecting a healthy dose of face-to-face conversation into the everyday happenings at Yahoo headquarters may discourage some employees. However, given the challenging and competitive industry in which Yahoo operates, Mrs. Mayer’s “old school thinking” may be the catalyst for developing the positive culture and generating the awesome ideas needed to take her company to the next level.