If Yahoo! employees worked out loud…

Yahoo! logoIt could have all been avoided.

When angry Yahoo! employees leaked an internal memo “asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices”, it touched a nerve. Bloggers wrote about CEO Marissa Mayer’s insensitivity and hypocrisy. Other CEOs publicly disagreed with her.  People took it personally, taking sides on Twitter and Facebook.

But the issue for companies, including Yahoo!, isn’t really about working from home. It’s about how people relate to each other at work. And, whether or not employees go to the office, something they all should do is work out loud.

The Yahoo! memo

The memo sparked debates – on employees’ rights, Yahoo!’s culture, management style  – that lead to heated opinions but no answers. And yet the memo did include a few things that are simply incorrect. In two statements about improved collaboration and communication, the conclusion is that being in the same office is the only way to reach their goals.

“…communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”

“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.”

And that’s wrong. Not only isn’t “side-by-side” the only way, it isn’t even the best way for a company the size of Yahoo!.

The limits of “side-by-side”

Of course, physical proximity is important. Studies in the 1980s and 1990s have shown have shown that the best predictor of collaboration is physical distance. But the effect of proximity is strikingly limited. In “Influencer”,  for example, they summarized research that studied Bell Labs scientists:

“The best predictor was…the distance between their offices. Scientists who worked next to each other were 3 times more likely to discuss technical topics that lead to collaboration than scientists who sat 30 feet from one another. Put them 90 feet apart, and they are as likely to collaborate as those who work several miles away! The probability of collaboration sharply decreases in a matter of a few feet.”

You can only be “side-by-side” with a few other people. If, like Yahoo!, you’re 11,500 people spread across 4 continents, “side-by-side” has no meaning.

For people more than 90 feet apart, office designers try to increase the chances of the “hallway conversations” that Yahoo wanted (or the “unplanned collaboration” Steve Jobs strove for). Research supported this.

“Proximity also facilitates informal conversations which can serve to enhance social relationships and work coordination.”

That assertion, while true, doesn’t scale well. Yes, you may meet someone in the cafeteria. But for companies of Yahoo!’s size and number of buildings, the odds are abysmally low that you’ll bump into someone with relevant work interests that you know well enough to talk to.

Not “side-by-side” but closer nevertheless

In a sense, Yahoo! was right…10 years ago. In the 1980s and 1990s when researchers examined the benefits of proximity, they also examined the use of online tools at the time.

“There are at least two aspects of informal communication which might mediate its effects on work and social relationships: its richness in terms of visual, audible, and other sensory cues, and its frequent, opportunistic nature.”

10 years ago, they found the tools lacked the richness and serendipity associated with physical proximity.

Today, though, social platforms and communications tools address many of those issues. You might still get more out of working side-by-side with another individual. Yet, across a company, the best collaborative environment today isn’t physical but virtual.

”It’s expensive and often impossible to reduce the physical distance, but you can increase the digital propinquity – the kinship between employees – by encouraging the use of a social platform at work.”

When employees are connected with a social platform and are working out loud – making their work observable and narrating their work – you dramatically increase the chances of people coming into contact with other relevant people and work. You have a much better idea of who is contributing and how those contributions are valued. And you eliminate the need to physically oversee people to ensure they’re working.

Not a substitute but a complement

Using a social platform and working out loud doesn’t impose a location strategy or office design. If a firm feels they need people to come to the office, fine. If they want to spend a lot of money on a new atrium design to encourage serendipity, fine.

But, whatever they do, every firm should create an online environment where people can come to know each other wherever they are – across the hall or across the planet. When companies do that, they can spend more time on innovation and efficiency and less time debating HR policies in public.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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17 Responses to If Yahoo! employees worked out loud…

  1. I think in the studies you cite the size of the “network nodes” in terms of the number of people is also a factor in promoting collaboration, as is the closeness of topics the different nodes are working on.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Dennis. And it’s safe to say social platforms make it easier to create those network nodes or identify and connect them just as its easier to identify and connect people working on similar topics.

  2. Chris Dehon says:

    Interesting post John.
    In my views this logic validates even more the Unified Communications side of Social Media (desktop video/voice, video conference) as it (attempts to) address the human interaction components. Unfortunately most (all?) UC interactions are not impromptu and not informal therefore missing the serendipity factor. May be there is value in creating an “always on” watercooler video conference/hangout 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Christophe. We had such things on the trading floors decades ago. Remember “hoots” and “squawk boxes”? They were always-on conference calls to the exchange floors. As low-tech as they were, a trader felt tapped in to all that ambient and conversations on the floor while also having on-demand access to people.

      We could certainly do much more integrating UC with social platforms and with video water coolers, etc, etc. the key is to be cheap, though, a la Lean Startup, as we have no idea what will work best and too many have spent millions failing.

  3. Excellent as always, John. I love the “working out loud” concept. Great post.

  4. Margaret Molloy says:

    Truly excellent John

    Fond regards,

    Margaret Molloy
    CMO | Velocidi

  5. brianinroma says:

    Great post John. I particularly liked the line, “If, like Yahoo!, you’re 11,500 people spread across 4 continents, “side-by-side” has no meaning.”

    I think the memo was less about making the case about the value of face-to-face communication and more about culling staff who were no longer creating value. It is now being reported that Mayer made the move after checking the VPN logs and seeing that many teleworkers were not logging in to the corporate server (http://www.businessinsider.com/how-marissa-mayer-figured-out-work-at-home-yahoos-were-slacking-off-2013-3?0=sai).

    I would challenge using VPN log-in as a proxy measure of value creation, but in a company that large, it is an efficient, although blunt, indicator.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Brian. It’s possible that the change might be exactly the right thing to do for Yahoo! at this time. (I don’t think so but it’s possible.) And, even if it is, connecting employees via a social platform and encouraging them to work out loud would still be a smart thing to do.

  6. Andy Davies says:

    Great summary John – it’s all about balance which it seems that Yahoo let slide to the wrong side of productivity

  7. productfour says:

    Hi John – You are getting to the heart of an important matter here, and you know I profoundly agree – you should also know that I work from home nearly full time. There is a thing that I think gives marissa a credible benefit of the doubt here though and its this – if your employees are disengaged and disenfranchised then it is much harder to use technologies to break through – not impossible but harders. If you have a reasonably healthy workforce to begin with i think your argument holds – but as yet, F2F is still easier

  8. Ravindra GUpta says:

    Great Article John ,

    If individual are passionate about work, Physical proximity can have min impact. We work in global enviorment where the glue for collaberation is not sitting close to each other rather invisiible string of motivation and passion that can help to you to connect to right individuals.

    • Sam says:

      Agree with the glue comment. If people are truly motivated physical location is not nearly the issue (but its rare to have this motivation, and even rarer to keep as a normal operation level, as far as what I’ve seen).

  9. Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

    John, I reread your post today and feel compelled to compliment you. Your well-developed argument for the limitations of “side by side” has just enough tongue-in-cheek and shows your magnificent sense of humor. Your logic reminds me of delighting in reading Socrates/ Plato in Greek class. True beauty and great flow of reason.
    And, as for the ancient Greeks, harmony and balance would be the best guidelines for making decisions that have such broad-based consequences for the entire Yahoo! work force of over 11,500 people. The new information that has come to light about decision making based on VPN logs seems such a sorry way to correct major problems. Maybe, as you suggest, this is a good first step to start to address under-performance.
    Where I am going with these comments is coming back to the wisdom of your approach, to “working out loud” and the value of social platforms and communications tools to keep productivity high – and using them for all the right reasons.
    Great job and so enjoyable, John. Thank you!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Cornelia. Can I nominate you for favorite commenter ever? 🙂 I was sure to forward “magnificent sense of humor” to my kids who might proffer a different assessment.

      Thank you very much for such a nice comment and taking the time to write it. If I can help you in some way, I’m happy to do it.

      • Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

        Of course! Nominate away! And send the kids to me, I’ll read them any riot acts needed ;-)) Seriously, I especially love your grass-roots approach to an analysis. It really and truly reminds me of reading the classics in the original Greek. In particular, I have to say that I read some other “analyses” of the Yahoo situation in the last few days and found them to be so slap dash compared to your excellent and elegant work. Thanks again!

      • John Stepper says:

        Okay. It’s official. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Do You Need to be at Work to do Work?

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