Collaboration

Yahoo made the news this week, with a policy change mandating employees to work in the office. A lot has been said about it the past few days, however I tend to disagree with many of them. I think it’s actually far more complicated than what is implied in much of the media outcry. What I should say upfront is that I have worked from home for over a decade, and for the most part I truly enjoyed it. At the same time, I have also seen the disadvantages. Today, if I were to run a bigger company, I am sure that what I would do is neither the ‘I don’t care where people work, as long as they’re productive’ not the ‘let’s all get together in the office’. I believe in reality neither of those extreme positions would do justice, and more importantly it wouldn’t be the way to maximize productivity.

First of all, I don’t think there’s a question whether it makes sense to have everybody together in the office. If you think meeting, if you think brainstorming, if you think collaboration, getting stuff – it’s all done much better together. So easy to speak in a conference room, or better yet, the cafeteria, hallway, or the bar after office hours. A phone call, or worse phone conference, can never get close. And video chat doesn’t change much here. So it seems natural, that spending the day together in the office makes sense.

At the same time, there are cases where it’s difficult, or even counter-productive, to spend the (full) day at the office. When you’re working isolated, you don’t need help or collaboration with others, when all you want to do is get some stuff done. Uninterrupted, focused, concentrated. Or if you think about inspiration. Maybe it’s a good idea to get out of the office. For a walk, a coffee, a discussion outside the office. Maybe you have a kid ill and can’t afford to leave it alone. I can think of so many reasons why it makes sense to make an exception. And maybe, if you job is about silently and focused work, it’s not even an exception, it’s the rule that it makes more sense to do it from home.

But here’s the issue. How can you trust your employees to make the right decision. To carefully weigh the needs of the job vs. family. How can you trust everybody to make the best decision, and to do it each day, depending on actual needs. To me, it seems that is key. I guess I would worry about that first. Inspring the team to think as one. To trust each and everybody makes the best decision. To encourage employees to spend more time in the company, so collaboration isn’t sacrificed. But not enforcing it. And, by the way, this is exactly what Yahoo does, according to the memo it says “for [those] who occasionally have to stay home…, please use your best judgement in the spirit of collaboration”.

That to me is the scary part about Yahoo’s move. The enforcement. The apparent no exceptions allowed rule. I don’t want to speculate what lead them to make this decision. But to me it sounds like that’s where I’d start investigating. If my feeling was people aren’t spending enough time in the office, they weren’t collaborating enough, I’d worry deeply. And maybe, to set a sign, a would temporarily enforce a stricter (not one with no exception) policy. Doing so, however, has a price tag on it. You may lose some of your most talented people. It may generally harm the culture and satisfaction of everybody in the company. I’d be very careful with this. Very careful.

And yet, nothing can beat that argument. Collaboration requires people to spend time together – face to face. Period.