02/28/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Why Passing on the Remote Is Good for Yahoo!

With the hullabaloo surrounding Yahoo's leaked memo summoning all remote workers back to the office, it's clear that the subject of mobility, as we design professionals call it, has touched a modern workplace nerve. We all like to think that we can work anywhere at any time. Tablets, smart phones, and The Cloud have delivered the promise of freedom from being tethered to any specific location. Work isn't a place, after all. It's a thing you do wherever and whenever you want. Today's employers of choice allow for great flexibility and work-life balance, which means working from home, from Starbucks, or from the beach. Right?

Sort of. Marissa Mayer's decision is perhaps the best-publicized moment in what has been a growing backlash against the mobility movement. A few years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, these sorts of programs were all the rage as Corporate Real Estate executives sought to prove their value by cutting the operational expenses of running massive real estate portfolios -- in effect shedding space to improve their companies' bottom lines. Reducing these expenses, the story went, would allow more money to be funneled into R&D. These programs were often well thought-out and well-executed, with clever names and elaborate branding campaigns. In the minds of workplace strategists, they were simply responding to the indisputable fact that most workspaces were sitting empty most of the time anyway.

In large, distributed organizations, frequent business travel and early-morning and late-night conference calls with teams in Europe and Asia meant that people were already working odd hours and with teams across multiple geographies. That, combined with the soul-sucking quality of endless greige cube farms and often punishing commutes, didn't motivate people to come in. Often times, one's directors sat in a different city anyhow, so what difference did it make? If by formalizing patterns that had already taken hold a company could save billions of dollars, why not do it?

Because remote work can dilute organizational commitment and can lead to an often tactical, not strategic mentality amongst participants. Yes, many of the mobile tools the Valley is so busy creating make seamless collaboration with remote colleagues easy, but just as often, they are facilitating the same pointless conference calls and adding to the same boring PowerPoint decks. Meetings tend to be scheduled as recurring hour-long Outlook Calendar invites rather than spontaneously when ideas are taking hold. And IM conversations tend to replace the nuances and unsaid information that only face-to-face conversations can offer.

Instead of addressing these strategic management issues, many of these mobility programs, having originated in the Real Estate, HR, or Finance departments, looked at cost savings first and ignored the larger organizational challenge of igniting the passion and ingenuity of their people, their most important assets. Not only did these companies lock in their bloated processes, creeping corporateness, and numbers-oriented reporting, they made it exceedingly difficult to right a listing ship once adrift.

Instead of building in the flexibility to allow for top talent to work remotely as life situations or workload demanded, mobility programs tended to codify stagnation and predictability. It's a subtle difference that might be getting lost in the Mayer flap. It's not like most successful Silicon Valley companies -- Google and Facebook included -- are holding their employees as 9-5 hostages. They're extraordinarily supportive of the kind of personal latitude to get one's work done around a dentist appointment or picking a child up from daycare. It's just that their competitive advantage comes from harnessing the collective brainpower contained within their facilities.

An unscientific list of companies whose mobile work programs have resulted in faster speed-to-market, higher rankings in Fast Company's "50 Most Innovative Companies" list, and consistently higher profits is short, while those with mobility programs that haven't quite panned out is much longer. Here in the Bay Area, Sun Microsystems, HP, and Cisco are just a few whose programs didn't necessarily light their worlds -- or stock prices -- on fire.

Yet, on the other side of the Valley, Google, Facebook, Apple, Airbnb, Square, Pinterest, and Dropbox, to name a few, encourage their employees to throw themselves into the mix of active, dynamic, and inspiring work environments and to contribute ideas, often in ways that can't be scheduled on a weekly call, that lead to their next big thing. While it's true that most task-based and truly independent, deep-focus work is often best done in isolation, Ms. Mayer's order suggests the hard work of real transformational change cannot be phoned in.

In fact, what these companies, and their investments in their physical workplaces, agree on is that the workplace is one of the primary vehicles though which a company can communicate its management philosophy, mission, and values. The more mobile and digital our world becomes, the more important the simplicity of human contact and the tactility of place becomes.

In fact, research indicates thoughtfully and successfully-designed physical workplaces are a key driver of the kind social capital necessary to power innovation. But it goes beyond the serendipitous interaction at the proverbial water-cooler. Good workplace design is intentional and powerful. Facebook's campus in Menlo Park is a shockingly active and alive place. And the many smaller companies clustered in SoMa provide a similar crush of human energy that says the future is being created here. Whole communities of work geared to entrepreneurs and people with ideas have popped up around this energy. NextSpace, arguably Northern California's co-working pioneer, had an early tagline that was blunt but effective: "Because working alone sucks."

While Ms. Mayer has been criticized for a retrograde approach to work/life balance, attraction and retention, and even of ignoring the flexibility that mobility offers working mothers like her, hers is a company that is not in good shape. Righting the ship, much less restoring Yahoo! to its previous status as the Silicon Valley "it" company requires an all-hands-on-deck approach that only the accelerated serendipity and collective creativity of collocation can offer.

She's not telling employees that Yahoo! wants them to give up their personal lives to long commutes, lifeless cubes and sad Bunn drip coffee makers. She's simply saying to her people that if they're all in this together, they've got to be in this together. Literally.