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The Yahoo question: Does working from home kill innovation?

The Yahoo question: Does working from home kill innovation?

Allowing staff to work from home, now known as ‘telework’, offers a lot of perks for companies.

For one, it saves on desks and some of the costs of running an office. It makes companies more attractive to parents and others who want to work flexibly. And it allows companies to hire the most talented staff, no matter how far they reside from head office. For all these reasons, companies that allow their staff the option of telework typically get a good run in the press, where they’re lauded for their “enlightened” attitude.

But some of the world’s most successful companies are shunning telework, saying it kills the innovation and creativity they need to keep leading the market.

Yahoo, headed by ex-Google exec Marissa Mayers, is the most recent example.

Early this week its HR department issued an internal memo, duly leaked, telling staff that from June they’ll no longer be able to work from home.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” it read. “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 being physically together.”

Yahoo isn’t the only company to take this attitude towards telework. Mayer’s old company, Google, takes a similar view.

Its CFO, Patrick Pichette, was in Sydney last week. He told an audience of entrepreneurs that at Google, the policy was to allow as little telework as possible. The irony of this, coming from a company that prides itself on allowing people to connect electronically, was noted by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Ben Grubb, who reported on the talk.

“Working from the office is really important,” Pichette said. “There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking, at the computer, ‘What do you think of this’?”

LeadingCompany found support for this idea. Yvette Blount, the research co-ordinator at the Australia Anywhere Working Research Network and a lecturer at Macquarie University, is one of Australia’s leading experts on telework. She says there’s research to support the view that innovation gets a boost when people are in the same room, working together.

And that makes a lot of sense,” she says. “Through chatting – conversations – if you’ve got the right environment, people innovate.”

Nonetheless, she says the Yahoo edict is overkill.

“A lot of people in Yahoo wouldn’t be in creative jobs. For example, those in accounts, customer service, human resource management – all those support roles – I’m really not sure why they need to be in the office.”

Telework, like many things involving human interaction, isn’t straight-forward.

For example, there’s a large and growing body of academic research that finds allowing staff to work from home boosts productivity.

Dr Rachelle Bosua, from the University of Melbourne School of Engineering, is the author of one such study, published this month in the Telecommunications Journal of Australia.

“It was a broad study,” she tells LeadingCompany. “We looked at banking, we looked at government and public sector employees’, education, IT, marketing… it wasn’t one specific industry.”

Bosua’s study found that teleworkers become more productive than office workers provided they have access to high-level IT support. They start work earlier, work up to three hours per day longer, and get more done.

On the innovation question, Bosua says not all companies have as much imperative for innovation as consumer tech companies such as Google and Yahoo do. But even so, ideas don’t just come from conversation, but from engagement with many different things, such as social media and reading. “I agree socialisation is important,” she says. “But it’s not the only thing.”

She adds that Google and Yahoo have vastly different cultures and work environments to most other companies.

Google is famous for providing employees with beautiful workspaces that include cafeterias, gyms, and play areas for taking a break. This encourages conversation and the free flow of ideas – it’s not just about chaining employees to their desks nine-to-five.

Telework will never work for everyone and in all industries, Blount says. “It’d be difficult for a hairdresser to work from home, for example. And in some organisations, it won’t suit the culture.”

“But in lots of jobs, particularly knowledge jobs, telework offers flexibility. For example, if you have a deadline, it might be appropriate to stay home away from distractions and just focus on getting something done. Then you can go into the office in the afternoon for feedback and to bounce off others. It’s about getting the balance.

“And there’s lots of different ways to work, even in an office. It could be in a coffee-shop, or in a co-working space, depending on the work. Businesses gain by creating opportunities to do that.”

Myriam Robin

Reporter

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Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.
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