Yahoo! and Creativity: Part 2

Since my post last month on the Yahoo!-Telecommuting controversy word of Marissa Mayer’s decision seems to have spread worldwide. Opinion expressed in the media has been both pro and con (mostly con) about the impending ban of home-based telecommuting for all Yahoo employees. If nothing else, the Yahoos certainly have stirred up public recognition that there are lots of telecommuters out there.

Much of the controversy is centered about two major apparent presumptions on the part of CEO Mayer as she tries to inject new life into Yahoo!:

  • Telecommuters are less productive than are office-bound employees; and
  • It is not possible to be creative or innovative while telecommuting.

Therefore Ms. Mayer feels that it’s necessary to bring the, mostly home-based, Yahoo telecommuters back to the office as a means of revitalizing both the telecommuters and Yahoo.

Productivity

Let’s examine those ideas in light of the evidence. First, my 40 years of experience quantifying teleworkers’ performance demonstrates that properly qualified and trained teleworkers are, on average, 8% to 20% more productive than their in-office co-workers. Their performance tends to steadily improve after their first few weeks of teleworking so this is a long-term benefit to their employers, not a flash in the pan. For more evidence check a graphic video covering this and some other points as well.

The key to this, of course, is the properly qualified and trained bit. Not all employees have jobs suitable for teleworking; their jobs are location-dependent, requiring their physical presence in their distant-from-home work location. Some employees need to be with others to function properly or otherwise keep themselves organized and focused. Those two groups do not make good home-based teleworkers. Roughly 30% of all information workers fall into this category; the information workforce in developed countries comprises about 60% of the total workforce so about 40% of the workforces in developed countries are potential teleworkers—at least on a part-time basis.

Now the training part. Working remotely is not the same as working in the office. While the frequent interruptions in the office are missing, so are the cues that it’s work time, not play time. Similarly, managers of teleworkers need to become leaders rather than overseers; they need to focus on the results produced rather than the production process. Both partners in this work relationship need to shift attitudes and habits to fit this different work environment. That generally requires training both prior to initial teleworking and occasionally afterward in the form of brush-up sessions.

My experience has been that when teleworking fails it is usually a result of poor selection or insufficient training of teleworkers and telemanagers. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that  this is the case with the Yahoo telecommuters although I’m also not sure whether CEO Mayer even considered the productivity levels of the telecommuters before making her decision.

Creativity and Innovation

The second key assumption is that creativity and innovation only happen when people are in frequent face-to-face contact. The serendipity factor in those chance meetings in the hallway or the cafeteria is impossible if those meetings don’t occur, so the theory goes. Recently Bell Labs has been held up as the epitome of creativity and innovation and therefore as proof of these assumptions. The problem with that is that Bell Labs, at least during the period of its existence, comprised projects that were almost entirely location dependent. In fact, during my rocket science career, I worked with Bell Labs in the development of the guidance system for the Titan 1 ICBM. One had to be there to make this work. The keyword here is labs: a place where people need to go in order to manipulate physical objects. So the comparison of Bell Labs with Yahoo or Google is false; both of these latter organizations are primarily information factories.  Given the information technologies available today neither of these organizations is particularly location dependent.

So the question is whether it is possible to be creative or innovative outside a centralized organization.  I won’t go into the metaphysical issues of just exactly what is creativity or innovation. The facts are that our surveys of telecommuters and telemanagers demonstrate that telecommuters consistently are more creative than their in-office colleagues. In at least one case the telecommuters we tested were able to start and complete (innovate) a project that they said they would have been unable to finish if they were in the office full-time. All of this while working from their respective homes. So I remain skeptical of statements that workers need to be in a togetherness environment in order to be either creative or innovative. None of the brilliant ideas I have had ever came as a result of some chance meeting in the hallway or cafeteria. On the contrary, my personal experience has been that togetherness dampens creativity.

Then there’s the fact that Yahoo! just paid $30 million to 17-year old Nick D’Aloisio for his startup company, the developer of the iPhone App Summly. As part of the deal Mr. DAloisio will work for Yahoo while completing his schooling in London. As the Financial Times noted:

But the teenager is likely to be studying remotely — after all his new boss Marissa Mayer recently banned Yahoo employees from working from home.

Which direction will Mr. D’Aloisio’s creativity and innovation go from here? How is it in your organization?

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