Marissa Mayer, the new Mom who is also the CEO of Yahoo!, recently announced that all Yahoos (that’s what they call employees) have to work at the office, not from home. Since then, the blogosphere has been all aflutter. A majority of the bloggers I’ve read suggest that Mayer is retrograde, dumb, and sexist. I have to disagree. I think it’s a very smart move and about time, too.
The arguments against Mayer’s decision have to do with productivity, convenience, women’s rights, and maybe even clean air. Stephen Dubner (one of the two Steves who created Freakonomics) wrote that an experiment at a Chinese travel agency shows that woking at home can increase your productivity and reduce health problems. Apparently long commutes raise your blood pressure. A recent article from Stanford (based on the same Chinese study) suggests that the productivity of those working at home is 13% greater than those working at the office. An article on WAHM.com (Work At Home Moms) argues that telecommuting shifts the employee’s emphasis away from politics and towards performance. Months ago, Slate wrote that Mayer doesn’t care about sexism. Grindstone calls Mayer’s decision a “morale killer” and a “giant leap backward for womankind.” The Atlantic Monthly flatly declares that “Marissa Mayer Is Wrong”.
But is she wrong? It depends on what she’s trying to do. Raising productivity is generally a good idea. But if the price of productivity is reduced innovation, then the cost is too high. There’s a strong case to be made that working from home — while it provides many benefits — inhibits innovation. I’ve written about the mashup nature of innovation. Many of the best new ideas are mashups of existing ideas.
The same logic applies to people. Getting people together — and encouraging them to mix and mingle in more-or-less random ways — helps them mash up concepts and create new ideas. It’s why Building 20 — a ramshackle, “temporary” structure on the MIT campus — generated so many innovations. People bumped into each other and shared ideas and, in doing so, created everything from generative grammar to Bose acoustics. It’s why cities produce a disproportionate share of of inventions and patents (click here and here). It’s why reducing the number of bathrooms in a building will increase innovation –you’re more likely to bump into someone. It’s why I advise my clients to allow e-mail to flow freely between buildings but to banish it within a building. If you’re in the same building as the recipient, get together for a face-to-face meeting. You’ll get more out of it — maybe even an innovative new product.
So, what is Mayer trying to accomplish? In her memo to all Yahoos, she speaks of “communication and collaboration” and notes that “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” She doesn’t use the word “innovation” but that’s exactly what she’s talking about. And, in my humble opinion, Yahoo! could use a healthy dose of innovation. So I think Mayer has got it right: PPPI — proximity and propinquity propel innovation. All I can say is: you go, girl!