Last May, Clive Thompson wrote a wonderfully provocative article in Wired about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the infamous work at work what hitting the long tail stage.
“When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned her employees from working at home earlier this year, she sparked a culture war over How We Work Today. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the head of Yahoo HR wrote in a memo. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
Pundits and executives said Mayer was nuts: Telecommuting offers family-friendly flexibility, and research shows that people who work remotely are far more productive, right? Others shot back in her defense, citing the “water-cooler effect”: You only get innovative, breakthrough ideas when staff work face-to-face and exchange ideas serendipitously…”
Thompson summed up the problem in simple four words: "…both sides are right. Telework makes you more productive, and working together makes you more creative. And therein lies a paradox. The real challenge for people who run modern organizations is understanding what type of thinking they want to do, not where to do it.”
He sites a study Isaac Kohane, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who looked at 35,000 biomedical papers published from 1999 to 2003, each with at least one Harvard author. Then he measured how influential the papers were, based the frequency of citations by other academics.
“Geography trumped: The physically closer that the first author listed on the paper was to the last, the more influential their paper became. “It’s whether we can chat and have extemporaneous talks,” Kohane says. “It’s serendipity.”
He also writes about an Arizona State team studied three tech firms using “sociometric badges” that monitored location and proximity to track employee interaction. “Again, face-to-face won out. On days the teams were most creative, they were also closest to each other and most physically active. “
Thompson makes the case that organizations also need productivity—six hours of mental peace to finish a single complex piece of work. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom took employees at a huge Chinese travel agency and randomly assigned some to work from home while others worked in the office. The result? The stay-at-homes did 13 percent more overall.
Productivity and creativity aren’t always found in the cube farm.
Thompson continues: “The trick here is for groups to employ a new skill: metacognition. That’s thinking about thinking. Rather than obsessing over the apparent dichotomy between productivity and creativity, managers and employees need to assess what type of mental work they’re doing on any given day and gravitate to where it’s best suited. Doing Mad Men–style “aha” groupthink? Stay in the office. Need to crush that 90-page memo on paper-clip appropriations? Seems like the kind of thing best handled at home, possibly in your underwear. One-size-fits-all policies—like the one at Yahoo—are too crude for today’s white-collar toil.”
My experience in working at home was in Los Angeles working on financial clients for a direct marketing firm. Because my daily commute was over an hour, (The company moved to the hinterlands after I started working there) working at home was a privilege and a blessing. I worked longer hours to ensure I wouldn’t lose the privilege.
I was also a freelance creative for advertising agencies. I worked on deadline and got the work done. Typically, the less time I spent at the agency, the more productive I was.
I don’t think Mayer’s initiative is wrong. Yahoo needed a dose of adrenaline and sense of purpose. And I do think that creativity can thrive at the individual level. It is matching the talents, strengths and working styles of individuals and allowing the opportunity to put them where they add the most value.
It’s a question of trust and human nature.
Thompson sums up the dilemma of either/or with and.
“The smartest organizations will be the ones that understand these subtleties and flow with them. The only way to win this culture war is not to play.”