Home working vs the office: the final word

10 Mar 2013

MIT’s Bill Aulet kicked off his SXSW session - 1 Coffee Pot, Many Disciplines: Why Space Matters - with a simple question: who agrees with Marissa Mayer when she demands that all Yahoo staff must work in the company office?

The yeses went first. I kind of agreed, but not enough to put up my hand. Then went the nos. I was closer to no than yes, so I put up my hand. But it took the rest of the talk to make me realise quite why I was so hazy on the matter.

Let me quote you the most pertinent paragraph from the leaked Yahoo memo:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

I’ve seen writers churn out thousands of words in a day, which would be impossible for them in the interruption-laden environment of an office

Now some of that makes absolute sense. Who could argue against the importance of communication and collaboration? And I have no problem with the idea that great insights come from the random bumps of an in-office team, nor with the positive effect of impromptu meetings.

But the rest of it – well, I always felt it was a vast, sweeping statement to suggest that speed and quality are sacrificed when working from home. For some people, sure. I’m lousy at working from home. I get distracted by everything from the sound of the kettle switching on to thoughts about dinner that night. I have no such issues when I’m in the office.

But I’m also aware that some people work supremely well in a home environment. I’ve seen writers churn out thousands of words in a day, which would be impossible for them in the interruption-laden environment of an office.

Bill Aulet made a similar, if not better, point about programmers. Their productivity goes up in anti-exponential fashion, starting slow for the first 15 minutes until they really start working – and then just keep on churning out code until their concentration breaks or an interruption happens. “Bill,” a programming colleague told him, “you interrupt me every 12 minutes.”

Now that doesn’t mean all programmers must work from home, but it does show the potential power of flexible working. And Aulet made another excellent point in his presentation: you need to think about the kind of company you are, the kind of work you do, and the point you have reached in your growth before you start working out flexible-working policies.

“You have to think about the balance between the value of interaction and the value of focus, between efficiency and innovation,” said Aulet (I may be misquoting him slightly, but that was very much the thrust of his point).

To me, that’s not the sort of statement you can apply to a whole company. That’s a department within it, possibly even a sub-department. If you work in a division that needs to produce loads of new ideas, you should probably work together. If you then get told, “make that idea happen”, it could be time to head out of the office where you won’t be interrupted.

So, Marissa, I come back to you. Do you really think it makes sense to lay down a blanket judgement on all 11,700 of your employees that they can no longer work from home? I’m putting up my hand with a hell of a lot more conviction this time.

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