Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Where to work

I read that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, says all employees must show up at the office.

No more working from home or from the local Starbucks. She wants to see you in your cubicle every day.

The rationale for this is that innovation happens when people encounter each other at the watercooler, in the cafeteria, in the washroom, and elsewhere.

The thinking goes that someone will inquire about what someone else is up to, and the answer will trigger a flash of brilliance that will evolve into a lucrative new product or service, or a better way of doing things that will save millions.

Well, maybe.

It can not be denied that many, perhaps most, employees have good ideas, and that we need to create a business culture and communications channels that bubble those ideas to the surface. In the aggregate, those ideas can have a substantial effect.

But in my almost 50 years as a human resources professional, manager, entrepreneur, and business owner, I have observed that most significant innovation comes from a tiny percentage of employees. I'm talking about the breakthrough ideas that can dramatically change the future prospects of a business.

These super-creatives have brains that operate on information in a different way. They can be at any level, and in any part, of the organization. They can be fresh recruits or veterans. They can surprise you. When you find them, you need to nurture them, and help them connect with others of their kind.

This probably means that these people should frequently be in the office and interacting face to face with others in order to foster synergy, the 2 + 2 = 5 effect. But they also need quiet thinking time, as that is also essential for innovation. Loud conversations from adjoining cubicles, attending pointless meetings, putting up with unwanted interruptions by co-workers, getting roped into office politics --- none of these is conducive to creative thought.

As for other employees, why not give them the option of working at home at least part of the time. Young mothers and those looking out for an aging parent will thank you for the flexibility this provides. So will those with disabilities that make travel difficult. Hours normally spent in commuter traffic jams will be spent on productive work. You'll be contributing to the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Your office expenses will drop.

A host of technological solutions are now available to satisfy even the most paranoid and insecure supervisor.

These can connect employees working remotely to the company and to each other, monitor their productivity, facilitate collaboration, and encourage social interchange with colleagues. The image of people sitting around in their pajamas, goofing off while collecting a paycheque, is at odds with reality.

In fact, in the 21st century, work can be performed anywhere, and the greater risk is that people will not shut down their laptops, turn off their smartphones, and call it a day.


  1. Great ideas! Quiet thinking time is vital, particularly for employees who are introverts; that's when they do their best. A one size fits all model does not work. We have to be flexible with employees. A little bit of this way and a little bit of that way, and every other way, will accommodate more people and their unique ways of working.

  2. Really interesting, Doug. Hints of Ayn Rand would normally get my socialist underwear in a knot but the older I get the more I''m understanding: neither right nor left but somewhere in between.