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.