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