Google's idea of productivity is a bad fit for many other workplaces

Credit:Maria Ly via Flickr

Yahoo's telework ban continues to be a source of curiosity and discussion in many business and social circles. The story that led to the ban is one of corporate dysfunction in which a number of employees allowed to telecommute actually ended up shirking their duties and many didn't even bother to hide the fact by regularly connecting to Yahoo's corporate network via VPN. Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ban remote work for the company as a solution.

That decision was certainly a rational and logical response, even though it might require some employees, who were hired with the understanding that they would work remotely, to relocate.

The situation could have been rectified without a complete telework ban -- new policies with strict enforcement actions, better training for managers and workers, updated performance review processes, and even hiring a telework czar for the company are among the 18 guidelines I discussed last week that can help prevent such a situation from occurring in the first place. 

But the memo sent to Yahoo employees focused on explaining the advantages of having everyone in the office and never mentions the abuses of remote workers.

That implies that Mayer might have used the event to make Yahoo more like Google, her previous employer, which goes to extraordinary lengths to keep employees in the office -- free meals, massages, vehicle oil changes, and dry cleaning are just a few of the perks to be found in the Googleplex.

Why Google does it this way

As noted recently by Greg Lindsay of the New York Times, Google believes that centralizing its workforce and designing its offices to encourage random encounters between employees from different areas of the company increases the chances for serendipitous encounters and discussions. In theory, this creates a breeding ground for nurturing ideas that might otherwise languish isolated in a single team or department. Random encounters and random idea-sharing frees ideas from that existence and may even result in major new products or programs.

Google has even planned a new campus of buildings that are designed as bent rectangles and mix indoor and outdoor spaces (including roof gardens and cafes). The idea is that these designs and arrangements will engender more of those random encounters. Ironically, those plans and concept behind them were published by Vanity Fair on the same day that Mayer's memo was sent to Yahoo's workforce.

This model of workforce creativity and productivity is the polar opposite to the concept of employees working from home or other remote locations on a daily basis. It also runs counter to traditional office designs where employees predominantly meet or congregate with only other members of their team or department or spend much of their time isolated by cubicle walls and office doors -- structures that Google has deprecated and removed.

Productivity gains in the office and away from it

It's easy to assume that because workers are away from the office, their colleagues, and any chance meetings that they will be less engaged and therefore less creative and less productive. An Arizona State University study published last year and cited by Lindsay seems to confirm that. The study looked at how social interactions in the workplace translate into idea growth and productivity and it indicated that something as simple as larger cafeteria tables can increase idea production simply because of larger and more diverse lunchtime discussions. A 2004 study that took place at the defense contractor Raytheon also seems to verify Google's belief.

But other studies that focus on comparing the productivity of office-based and remote workers (as opposed to those that focus on engagement, idea generation, and productivity of in-office workers) actually demonstrate overall productivity gains as employees move out of the office. There are several explanations about for this phenomenon.

One perspective is that being able to tailor a home office to a much higher degree than a cubicle or other traditional office space allows workers to create a space specifically engineered for their workflows and process (a similar argument is made for BYOD, mobile apps, and cloud services). This freeform model also lets workers tailor their work time to their needs and the needs of their families as well as to their own internal body clocks and daily rhythms.

There's also the displaced road rage idea. Employees that have long and stressful commutes tend to arrive at the office already on edge and stressed before the workday has even begun. Brandy Fulton VP of human resources for Citrix noted that the impact of such a commute can actually cause a drain in productivity because it takes time for an employee to recover from the adrenaline fueled anxiety and irritation. That lessens productive work time for the employee who had a difficult commute and can impact coworkers as well. This becomes a complete non-issue for employees that work from home (not to mention additional time that can be devoted to work rather than driving). Many silicon valley employers, including Google, provide free shuttle bus options to employees as a way to increase chance conversation and to combats commute-induced issues.

There's also evidence that remote workers are actually more engaged than their office doppelgangers. Reasons for this phenomenon include the idea that managers and workers take their coworkers for granted when they're around all the time, being out of the office and somewhat of the loop encourages remote workers to schedule more productive conversations and more regular check-ins, managers of remote workers make better use of communication tools, and managers maximize the time that they do spend with remote workers when those workers are in the office or at an event together.

It's also worth acknowledging that there is no guarantee that employees from different parts of a company will have substantive conversations that result in brilliant collaboration. They may simply be social interaction or even discussions of office politics and gossip, which don't encourage productivity or a positive attitude.

Not every workplace is a Google

Creative problem solving and innovation are traits synonymous with Silicon Valley. When you consider the big names in the Bay Area - Google, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Cisco to name just a few - it's easy to imagine employees dedicated many hours every day toward creating new and innovative technologies.

If you consider workers in a cubicle-filled federal office building, however, you're more likely to imagine clerks working in a sprawling bureaucracy. If you imagine a call center or any type, you're apt to picture rows of identical desks with operators wearing headsets and answering (or placing) calls for hours at a stretch. Neither image conjures up a hotbed of innovation.

The truth is that around the world and across the socioeconomic spectrum, there are millions of jobs where employees are slogging through work that pays the bills without creating "the next big thing" in their industry. That isn't a value judgment. These jobs make our 21st century society function. In many workplaces, chance encounters don't lead to spontaneous creativity. In those cases, the perks of telework, including employee satisfaction, increased productivity, and employee satisfaction, offer much better rewards than cramming employees into the same building or office park.

Even in innovative companies, a corporate culture may not place as much value as Google does on chance encounters. Organizations may measure value more in things like products sold, cases closed, audience added or retained, legal or marketing battles won, or information taught or transmitted. You can even argue that too many ideas being pursued can be bad for a company. Apple is actually a great example for that argument because company considers a great many ideas, but very few actually make it drawing board or to market.

The workplace and the high school cafeteria

One of the things that stuck out to me about the ASU study was the evidence showing that larger lunch tables encourages conversation and productivity. Google takes that concept even further with a company-wide lunch hour and free food.

This reminded me of my high school cafeteria. It had long tables, set lunch times, and heavily subsidized, though not free, food options. It also had the perennial "cool kids tables," tables where shy and introverted kids sat without making eye contact with their fellow students, and groups of friends that rarely spoke to anyone outside of the group. In short, it was a very cliquey environment -- one that didn't really lead to spontaneous encounters.

There are differences between that environment and a professional workplace, but in many companies and offices, including those where employees stay on campus for lunch, that same stratification of people tends to hold true. At various points in my career I've itnessed a couple of workplaces that were so cliquey they made my high school cafeteria seem incredibly warm and welcoming by comparison. At one very large company I was told that cliques and anti-social behavior persisted in one its cafeteria for years. That's the antithesis of what Google is trying to achieve.

One size rarely fits all

Google's desire to create serendipitous encounters afor Google. That doesn't mean it will work elsewhere. The reason it works for Google is that it is a logical extension of the company's culture and that Google is very good about maintaining its culture.

It remains to be seen if the same benefits will occur at Yahoo. Like a one size fits all t-shirt, it may be too big or too snug, or in need of alterations.

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