The recent uproar over Yahoo’s about-face on working from home is missing the point.
In her memo to staff, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer describes the move as a matter of communication, collaboration, speed, insight, and quality:
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. 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. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”
Quite a bit of research has been done on the relationship between creativity and physical co-location. It does not support Mayer’s position.
Susan Cain’s fascinating book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” reviews the research done on this very question. Citing research done at U.C. Berkeley in the 1950s and 1960s, Cain argues that the most creative employees tend to be introverts, who prefer to work alone for large periods of time. As she puts it, “Solitude is an important key to productivity.”
Even more interesting for Yahoo’s situation, further studies showed that programmers are particularly productive when left alone. “Top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Cain describes online collaboration–an area in which Yahoo was an early pioneer with its Groups offering–as the sole area in which group-based work yields more creativity than solitary work. “The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs.”
Electronic collaboration, it seems, delivers the best of both worlds: The ability to collaborate with others, combined with the solitude to develop one’s own ideas.
So why is Yahoo turning away from it?
The Huffington Post quotes a number of ex-Yahoos saying that employees have been “milking” the working from home policy.
That’s really the point here.
Mayer is not trying to solve a communication problem, or a collaboration problem, or speed problem, or an insight problem, or a quality problem.
She’s trying to solve a management problem.
Yahoo suffers from too much dead weight, too many people who aren’t producing. By dragging everyone into the office, Mayer hopes to suss out who’s working and who isn’t.
Unfortunately, it won’t work.
Bringing people into the office tells you who’s on the clock and who isn’t. And yes, there’s some value to that. But what Mayer (well actually it’s Mayer’s middle managers) really need to know is who is producing and who isn’t. Who’s hitting their numbers? Who’s delivering quality code? Who’s generating leads? I don’t care how good you are, you can’t tell that by physical inspection.
The only way to solve a management problem is through, well, better management. If Yahoo wants to know who’s producing and who isn’t, then they need to do it the old-fashioned way: define goals, measure outcomes, hold people accountable.
No matter where they sit.