Surowiecki scoops me: Mayer loses face, gains face time

You know you’ve been working on a blog post too long when it gets published in The New Yorker written by somebody else. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has gotten some flak for calling all her working at home employees back into the office, or else. Surowiecki writes in today’s issue of The New Yorker:

On the simplest level, telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interaction that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization. The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliché of business writing, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Not surprising from a guy who made it big with The Wisdom of Crowds, and I wholeheartedly agree.  Working at home – if you have a home that supports it – can be a wonderful thing for getting heads-down work done without interruption. It can save commuting time and pollution. Some personality types do their best work alone.  Some jobs really can be done in a vacuum.  But I don’t think all of that is enough. Telecommuting technology hasn’t yet been able to reliably simulate the hallway chat, the chance encounter, the overhearing, the emergency huddle or the pop-in.  And for tech companies struggling to find their place in the world (like Yahoo) I think that’s the stuff you can’t afford to miss out on. Plus, there’s the social cohesion, the team spirit. The classic tech company foosball table is no good if there’s nobody there to play it.

I’ve written before about the importance or unimportance of seating positions in an office and about offices vs cubes. Recently I got a promotion and was offered an office.  I chose to stay at my position in the cubes.  I didn’t want to give up the desk I had since it is located more or less centrally and gives me a a great view of what’s happening in the office.  I overhear things, I see comings and goings, people volunteer information when they hear me asking questions. Sure, I take conference calls in conference rooms to avoid disturbing my neighbors.  I also use headphones to block out noise and help me focus when needed, but on balance, I prefer being in the place where things are happening, not holed up and isolated.

It sounds like telecommuting was the rule at Yahoo not the exception, but I find that in many companies working at home is a perk, one awarded only to those deemed trustworthy enough to do the work and not goof off.  In these places, the more senior executives are more likely to have the ability to work at home, but those are exactly the people most needed in the office to provide leadership, mentorship, creativity, and coordination.

Do I want an end to all working at home? Certainly not.  If you ask CEOs what makes their companies great, they’ll often say that it’s the people or the culture or both.  If that’s really true, I think you want to grow and strengthen that culture and develop those people and get the most out of them.  And I think that happens best in the company office, although not necessarily holed up in your own office.

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