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Telecommuting Kills Creativity: What the Research Says About Yahoo's New Work Policy

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Everyone is pissed off about Yahoo's new ban on working from home. Or at least, that's what the media coverage seems to suggest; here are just a few of the criticisms I've read in the past few days:

  • It's an attack on working mothers, who won't be able to have breakfast with their kids or pick them up from school.
  • It shows a lack of trust in the employees, and morale will suffer.
  • It's a big step backwards in today's networked society.
  • Telecommuters are more productive than others who are actually in the office.

But none of these news articles have asked a basic question: What does the research show? Are companies more successful when their employees are gathered in one physical location? It turns out we have a lot of research about this, and it might surprise you. Basically, Marissa Mayer is right.

First of all, collaboration and teamwork are critical to companies today--especially in a knowledge-intensive software company like Yahoo. Nobody at Yahoo is an Army of One; even if they're at home, their work contributes to one or more team efforts. And research shows that it's really hard to make a team effective without lots of face-to-face time. Some amount of distant collaboration can be okay, but the majority of the team's work should be colocated. So basically, Mayer is right. Marissa Mayer: 1; Telecommuting: 0.

Second, creativity research shows us that new ideas emerge from surprising and unexpected conversations. Not from the scheduled meetings, but from bumping into someone from another division in the hallway, or spotting someone in the cafeteria you used to work with three years ago, or chatting at the coffee machine. My colleague Stuart Bunderson calls these serendipitous encounters "huddles". You can't plan them, and they're almost impossible to manage and measure, but they drive informal knowledge exchange and creative connections. Marissa Mayer: 2; Telecommuting: 0.

Third, research on group creativity shows that solitary individuals do have some advantages. The most creative groups have their members do some amount of creative work alone, like generating lists of ideas, before they come together for collaboration. Some people get their "aha" moment when they're alone, so some amount of solitary time is okay. (Although just as many people have their insight moments in groups and in conversation.) But research also shows you can't be creative alone without interspersing that downtime with collaboration and conversation (I talk about this research in my book Group Genius). So let's give both sides a point on this one; Marissa Mayer: 3, Telecommuting: 1.

Fourth, creativity is enhanced when people are exposed to new information and new ideas. My MIT colleague Deborah Ancona writes about "X-Teams" meaning teams that are externally focused. Tom Kelley, one of the founders of the legendary design firm IDEO, says "You don't want people sitting at their desks. The creative people are the ones who are out and looking around, talking to people, gathering information." So you absolutely don't need everyone sitting together in the same row of cubicles all day long. But this research doesn't help the case for working at home, either; you're not going to be exposed to new information or new people if you're sitting in your basement office. So neither side gets a point on this one.

Remember Richard Florida's book The Rise of the Creative Class? Back in 2004, Florida demolished the then-trendy idea that place no longer matters, that work can be done anywhere. His book demonstrates that innovation happens when people come together in the same place. It's true for a city, and it's true for a company.

Marissa Mayer's decision is the right one: Teams drive innovation, and teams work better when people are in the same place. Serendipitous encounters drive creativity, and they won't happen if everyone is working from home. However, there's some evidence that occasional solitary down time can enhance creativity. The research doesn't tell us exactly how much, but I would say working one day a week from home won't hurt the collaborative team, and it might even help a person's creativity. But working at home all week long? The research is pretty clear: That will kill innovation.