Marissa Mayer’s decision requiring Yahoo! employees to work in the office each day has sparked intense response: expressions of support, varying levels of empathy, and many reactions of distaste for a one-size-fits-all decision about where and when individuals do their best work. In my experience as a business and workplace consultant, this debate evokes emotion from leaders in many organizations.
Yahoo! is not the first company to take this approach. Many organizations believe that when people are in close physical proximity, employees establish relationships that lead to faster decision making and better results. The serendipitous interactions that occur in an office can set the stage for more effective team-based problem solving. The processes involved in managing employees and reinforcing company vision and culture can become more straightforward in a shared physical setting. In fact, the recent proliferation of open office designs can be attributed to a widely recognized increase in productivity when employees have ready access to their peers.
That said, the most successful workplace designs incorporate a variety of settings and technologies that enable connection and collaboration, both locally and globally. Google, Mayer’s alma mater, is well-known for providing effective tools for dispersed teams (despite their more Yahoo!-esque stance when it comes to their own employees). Many companies embrace these types of tools, and don’t share Mayer’s opinion about where people do their best work, often because these companies are driven by completely different priorities. For example, some organizations may be challenged to recruit and retain top talent—and may decide to remove restrictions about location in order to widen their net—while others strive to support teams that are working across multiple time zones and languages. In situations like these, technological capabilities such as VoIP, softphones, or desktop video allow employees to successfully share, collaborate, and brainstorm while remaining decentralized. Organizations with this type of culture are still rigorous in their work styles, but they also understand the benefits of allowing the individual to customize where and how to do a specific task. Many professional service firms, law firms, and media companies approach workplace in this manner: offer an environment in which people can do their best work.
These are two edges of a swinging pendulum, and the majority of organizations fall somewhere in between. Designing the most appropriate workplace is dependent on numerous factors that are unique to an organization, such as business culture, business cycle, and industry standards. Right now, Mayer has the tough job of reinventing a firm in the increasingly competitive landscape of online media. In this type of context, extreme decisions are sometimes required to convey the gravity of the situation and to achieve quick, high-impact results. Mayer likely knows the risk she’s taking; in fact, CNN’s Jack Welch recently commended her for being a shrewd business woman with solid judgment. Below are some ideas that we hope Mayer is considering as she assesses the success of Yahoo!’s new policy, which we hope you’ll also find helpful in developing a successful workplace for your unique organization:
1. CULTURE: An organization’s culture is one of the strongest factors in determining how people work together and interact. Physical space is one of many variables that determines how people make decisions, innovate, and deliver their work. The trust that is fostered when an employee is given the freedom to choose where and when they are most productive leads to higher levels of employee engagement. And an engaged workforce is not only more productive, it also has lower rates of turnover for top talent. How can you build an atmosphere that supports a can-do culture?
2. WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT: If you observe your workforce carefully, you’ll find that employees with poor performance when working remotely will not necessarily perform better while in the office. Also, an organization’s best talent is increasingly located farther away from ‘the office’. What resources need to be provided to ensure high quality performance, regardless of physical location?
3. WORK-LIFE BLENDING: While they may be considered an added bonus in this context, the benefits of avoiding a daily commute are very real. Having the flexibility to integrate the professional and personal fosters well-being, there is a reduction in carbon footprint for those employees that avoid a congested commute, and oftentimes employees who spend a day working from home will use the time that would have been spent on commuting to complete productive, company work. What could you do to provide greater flexibility to your employees? How could you improve your impact on the environment, through reducing the need for transit or other initiatives?
4. COLLABORATION: Employees are already learning and sharing ideas via virtual connections, whether by design or necessity. We can’t assume that face-to-face, spontaneous interactions alone will result in success. In fact, in a company of 12,000 employees, adjacency is hardly more than a figure of speech; being ‘close’ to someone is likely accomplished electronically. How can you redefine your perspective on proximity?
Personally, I hope that Mayer’s decision is a provisional step in Yahoo!’s journey of reinvention. I also hope she (and other executives that are currently questioning their own policies) will recognize that the demands of an organization and the nature of collaboration are always shifting. The pendulum never stops swinging.
Check out the follow-up post, “It’s Time for a Turnaround: A Tale of Two Tech Companies,” also by Rachel Casanova, for additional insight on this topic.