Why the Yahoo! back to the office edict is more complex than it looks

Much as internet commentators would like to reduce issues to simple sound-bites, the reality of home working is complex

There are weeks where the internet feels like one big machine for creating false dichotomies. This week for example, it was painful watching the internet carefully split itself into two camps over the issue of home working. Marissa Mayer, ex-Googler and hopeful saviour of Yahoo, is seen as being behind an edict that that the remote-working Yahoos’ time is up, and that they must bring themselves back to the office by June.

“No!” cried one camp. Home working is a boon for productivity and flexible working. This is a terrible mistake and a retrograde step!

“Yes!” cried another camp, this is great news, because Yahoo! is infected with work-from-home slackers who weren’t putting in the hours, and who aren’t really contributing to the company culture, either.

Yet, there is a heretic, striding between these two camps. Janet Parkinson of The Smart Work Company, is in danger of being shot by both sides, as she’s trying to establish a “third mediocre possibility” (as she puts it):

From a business perspective (which, in  my view is the only one to have) having workers based at home or scattered around in ‘hubs’ can have advantages including less time commuting unnecessarily, the opportunity for employees to focus on a specific project without interruptions from coworkers (KPI’s can be more focused on output rather than length of time spent on a project) and the advantage of utilising quality workers who aren’t in the immediate vicinity of the company office.

So: home and remote work is good for productivity.

Other studies also show that although people who work at home are significantly more productive it is trickier to be more innovative. As Dr John Sullivan notes:

“… telecommuting unfortunately reduces innovation. And because innovation brings in much higher profits than the traditional goal of corporate efficiency, many firms are now learning the value of emphasizing innovation as a primary strategic business goal.”

So, office and team-based working can be great for innovation.

What Janet is suggesting is that there’s a choice for you here: what’s more important, innovation or efficiency? If you want innovation, get your people back in the office, real sharpish.

In this context, Mayer’s decision actually makes a lot of sense. Yahoo!’s problem is very clearly stagnation and a lack of visible innovation. If she’s going to promote a culture of innovation there again – and that’s pretty much de rigeur for a web company – then getting people back in the office is exactly what she has to do.

Alan Patrick of the always-skeptical Broadstuff blog casts a more pecuniary eye over the situation:

I suspect if you look at the leverage for quite a lot of business roles, a 10% increase in Integration, Impact and Innovation has far more effect on the bottom than a 10% reduction in desk space costs. We would predict that this marks the high point in the remote work shift for this cycle, probably until far higher bandwidth and collaboration tools become available. (It’s also a size thing – its hard to goof off in small teams, much easier in huge corporates)

Much as online evangelists would like there to be one, simple answer to a problem, life (and working life in particular) is rarely as simple as that. There’s a combination of forces at work, sometimes contradictory, and you have to make decisions around what you’re preferred outcome is. Mayer seems to have chosen innovation and team spirit rather than productivity and “nice company” image. Time will tell if that’s a good call, but in the meantime, the internet will keep itself busy debating the flaw dichotomy and ignoring the real (and really fascinating) complexities…