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I have so many mixed reactions to the recent leaked Yahoo memo in which the company informed its employees that they could no longer work from home. A part of me was so disappointed that a major corporation (in the high tech business, no less) would implement such a rigid policy that flies in the face of the overall trend toward greater workplace flexibility. But I was also grateful that Yahoo’s memo spurred such intense debate and controversy because I welcome the opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions and pure myths about telecommuters and those who work on virtual teams.


Perhaps one of the greatest myths concerns the effectiveness of those who telecommute. In a front-page story that covered the Yahoo memo in the “The New York T... a management professor asserted that those who work from home are less innovative. That belief is prevalent among many executives who seem to think that the only way for companies to be innovative is to have employees in the same room, brainstorming and bouncing ideas off one another. But let’s take a closer look at that assumption.


The first thing to remember about innovation is that it’s a long process, consisting of three main stages: exploration (brainstorming and selecting which ideas to pursue), exploitation (taking innovations from the drawing board to commercial products), and diffusion (getting the market to adopt the innovation). In other words, brainstorming is just a small piece -- albeit a very important one -- of a much larger whole. And even within that small piece, people being together in the same room doesn’t necessarily lead to more innovative thinking. In fact, sometimes just the opposite can occur when the participants succumb to groupthink. An article in “The New Yorker” last year examined that myth of brainstorming.


Indeed, brainstorming need not be tied to a physical location and designated time; it can often take place across both space and time. Consider Rite-Solutions, which has developed software that relies on crowdsourcing principles, enabling people to collaborate in a virtual environment asynchronously to generate and select the best innovative ideas. According to a “The New York Times” story about the company, one creative idea generated through that system was the use of military pattern-recognition technology to make educational products for students more interesting. That proposal eventually led to a partnership between Rite-Solutions and Hasbro, the toy manufacturer.


Furthermore, when I’ve studied the entire process of innovation (including brainstorming), I’ve found that physical proximity (that is, being collocated in the same offices) is just a minor factor. In fact, it’s almost statistically insignificant. Instead, I have found that the most important thing is trust among team members, and that finding has been supported by an extensive survey of 300 companies conducted by PricewaterhouseCo.... How exactly, though, can managers build trust among co-workers, especially between those who must collaborate across different cities and time zones?


One effective solution is to look at ways to improve a team’s affinity distance by, for example, instilling in everyone a sense of “shared future and fate,” which would then make everyone feel interdependent. Another best practice is to make sure that people are recognized more for their contributions and less for their positions or status in the organization. Such actions will make everyone feel more like they’re on the same, level playing field, which will then help establish the right environment for trust to grow.


The point here is that reducing the physical distance of employees might seem like an easy, straightforward fix, but it often leads to more problems than it solves. One of my clients – a large insurance company – discovered that the hard way. In the past, whenever the company would acquire another business, it moved everyone from that firm to the corporate headquarters. But that policy only led to a dysfunctional environment of “e-mail hibernation” (people staying in their own offices and rarely coming out), which contributed to a drop in employee performance. On one major project, team members had trouble working with one another and the group had fallen way behind schedule, costing the company millions of dollars.


So here’s the simple truth: Forcing employees to be somewhere can easily be counter-productive. They might become present physically but absent in other important ways that can seriously hurt a business. And that’s a painful lesson that Yahoo might soon be learning.



Views: 694

Tags: distance, distributed, innovation, leadership, management, remote, teams, virtual, workers, workforce

Comment by Lawrence A. Mantrone on March 9, 2013 at 10:54am



Thanks for starting a thoughtful discussion on this topic.


I suspect that some of the commentary about the value of collocating employees stems from the agile project management movement, which has been gathering momentum over the past fifteen years and more. Techniques such as Scrum put a high value on individuals and interactions. Many of them advocate the use of deploying small teams in a single room for the length of the project. While this immersive approach is intended to foster collaboration, a bigger benefit may be that it isolates the team from distractions. I always cite the conclave of cardinals used by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries to elect popes (like the one that just started) as an example of this.


These methodologies extend beyond brainstorming ideas. Teams are expected to work closely together to flesh out project requirements, develop the product and test it during a series of brief, time-boxed increments. Feedback from beyond the team is solicited through retrospective meetings that take place immediately after an increment is finished.


The growing popularity of this approach may have contributed to the trend of companies housing staff in large open spaces without offices and cubicle walls. While this may work well for finite projects, it's fair to ask how well it works for ongoing operational processes. The stress of trying to concentrate on demanding tasks can lead to friction. Workers sometimes compensate by using noise-reduction headphones to salvage some semblance of quiet solitude and privacy.


Of course, the trend towards offshoring has led to virtual agile project management teams being used widely. Some clusters of collocated staff are usually created. It's quite common to have onshore and offshore software development teams work together on a single project, and those teams will often apply best practices for virtual team management to enable success.


The Yahoo decision seems to be based on more than a belief that collocation spurs creativity. Some reports have alluded to abuse of telecommuting privilieges by Yahoo employees, including accusations that some are even working on their own startups while on Yahoo time. This indicates greater organizational dysfunction, and your advice about reducing affinity distance by instilling a sense of shared future and fate seems especially appropriate. Why are so many of their employees so dispirited? What were their managers doing or not doing to create such alienation?


To me, the biggest questions are around what Yahoo will do once everyone has been brought back within the corporate walls? How will the necessary sense of urgency be instilled? Will Yahoo management be able and willing to listen to what employees have to say about getting the company back on track? What positive steps will be taken to foster the innovative processes that they are so desperate to ignite? What will they do if all of the hallway conversations are about the added stress and work/life balance problems brought on by having to work onsite all of the time?





Comment by Karen Sobel Lojeski on March 10, 2013 at 11:27pm

Dear Larry,

Thanks for the comment!

Warm Regards, Karen

Comment by Carl Eneroth on March 11, 2013 at 5:01am

Interesting post, Karen. But then, Yahoo has never been at the top of the pile, so it is not surprising. 

Comment by Karen Sobel Lojeski on March 11, 2013 at 8:28am

Dear Carl - yes.  that's true.  However the CEO has been touted as a major influence in the technology industry.  The example she sets by this is not appreciated by many although since she is a woman, this criticism is also tricky.  If this had been a man in the CEO position, would the tumult have been so great?  This is a slippery slope.

Thanks! Karen

Comment by Carl Eneroth on March 12, 2013 at 4:16am

Dear Karen, perhaps it is a question of working at A office, rather than THE (HQ) office, designing for cross encounters at various locations? But then, who to control if there is no one at the office to control? Power redistribution is a scary thing. 



Comment by Kevin Wood on April 9, 2013 at 2:48pm

There are a number of problems with the 'collocation = creativity' equation.

You are limited to the creative talents and skills in the area of collocation.  An organization in California can only draw on the creative talents of local Californians or those willing to relocate.  This limits an organization's growth.  You cannot expand into other areas because thn you are no longer collocated.

If you do decide to expand and are willing to accept the initial challenge to the creativity, evn regional centers can only draw from the local talent pool, and at the top level in each region, there is no creative collocated creativity, so your management stagnates.

A better solution is to develop management skills to foster creative collaboration in a distributed environment.  Unfortunately, THAT is not easy.  Far easier is to equate creativity with collocation.


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