Why Yahoo’s decision on telecommuting makes sense

To the editor:

Regarding Ron Bourque’s comments on Yahoo and telecommuting (“Data-based decision-making gone awry,” April 5-18 NHBR), I think that Ron missed a very important part of the story, at least as I read it in other venues.

Certainly one question in telecommuting is whether or not employees are working. To the extent that work expectations can be quantified or otherwise made explicitly objective, the question of whether or not the work is being done can be clear — they either did or did not achieve the objective. It is irrelevant when or where they did the work, it only matters that the goals were accomplished.

Whether or not employees are actually working may have been one consideration concerning Yahoo, but the much more important consideration seemed to be a lack of innovation. There is a very big difference between employees doing what they are told (top-down) and employees thinking about new solutions, often to problems that are not even defined.

The latter has been best served historically when individuals gather together, formally or informally, and discuss such issues. A phenomenon called "synergy" occurs where individuals build on each other’s ideas through interactive discussions. This is not to say that such "out-of-the-box" thinking can't occur, for example, through a teleconference, but there still seems to be an ethos that exists when people are physically together that does not otherwise happen.

For years we had our corporate and manufacturing personnel in Massachusetts, and our R&D engineering folks in L.A. Even though I worked in Massachusetts, and was in phone contact with the R&D folks daily, as company president, I would take the time to travel to L.A. a couple of times per month. The engineers would ask why I was taking the trouble for the trip, as they didn't have any issues that needed a closer review than our phone discussions. After I had visited for a couple of days, and we would be headed back to LAX, they would inevitably be surprised and pleased at how a number of valuable new ideas had emerged because we were together that were otherwise not even on the table for discussion.

I think that technology has been a great efficiency builder and that much problem-solving can occur through work collaboration tools, such as GoToMeeting, Skype and others. However, it is also my belief that things happen when individuals are together that do not otherwise occur.

When this type of innovation is critical, then it is essential that organizations make sure that the right individuals are in the same room at the same time.

A recent article in The New Yorker (“Face Time” by James Surowiecki, March 18) addressed this issue and reached the same conclusion. "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 any less true."

The article goes on to note: "But Yahoo — which has struggled to come up with new ideas and needs a more coherent identity — is making a smart call."

Finally: "Still, it's telling that companies, like Google, that are shaping the digital world are also the ones that have invested the most in building corporate campuses outfitted with every perk imaginable. Even as they make a remote-access future possible for the rest of us, they're doing everything they can to preserve an office environment that's surprisingly old school."


William R. Osgood
Knowledge Institute Inc.

Categories: Letters to the Editor, Opinion