Was Marissa Mayer right to ban home working for Yahoo! employees?

It seemed that no sooner had Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer announced her intention to ban home working for her employees than there were howls of protest against the move.

by Charles Black
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Early to weigh in against the idea was Richard Branson, who tweeted that he was: ‘Perplexed by Yahoo! stopping remote working. Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel.’

Some business analysts called it a backward step, while others were more firmly opposed to it. Melanie Turek of business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan was blunt, calling it a ‘terrible idea’.

Vocal protests are hardly surprising. The ability to work outside of a fixed location has become increasingly standard practice in the last 20 years, and Mayer’s decision seems to fly in the face of the acknowledged benefits of home or mobile working. 

I won’t rehearse these in depth but the main ones are higher productivity and much greater flexibility – home working is especially suited to employees with childcare responsibilities or those facing draining long commutes. And of course home working saves companies lots of money on office space.

It therefore may well surprise you that despite these sound reasons for home or mobile working I actually agree with Mayer. The nub of the issue is productivity, and if Mayer’s view is that Yahoo! staff will be more productive working exclusively in the office then her stance is understandable. 

As the boss of an innovative technology company, I see the sense of people working in the same physical space.
Highly innovative technology companies in the forefront of their fields need to produce a spark of magic. For such companies, there is no rule book or formula to copy. And like Yahoo!, I have found that our magic sparks happen most reliably when colleagues work together in close physical proximity. 

The reasons why seem clear to me. Innovators need colleagues on tap to brainstorm ideas.  Or they might need an instant second opinion, or want to sound someone out on an idea which might be off the wall but might also be a stroke of genius.  

Creative staff, and I do include programmers in this category, won’t have the patience to wait until next week for these things to happen. For creative programmers, the idea of having to schedule a meeting to progress a project would drive them nuts. It would be far too slow and infuriatingly bureaucratic.

Working at close quarters, hearing each other’s ideas no matter how mad or bad they might first seem, is something that just can’t be done the same way on a teleconference over Skype. 

And there’s also the morale element of working in the same room to consider. There’s an esprit de corps that comes when colleagues are in the same room sharing the moments or triumph and disaster.  

The same proximity logic also drives the grouping together of businesses in the same districts or neighbourhoods, such as Silicon Valley in California, or our very own equivalent Silicon Roundabout in London’s Hoxton district, which is where my company is based.

Of course, with modern communications technology such as cloud computing, companies can enjoy both office and remote working. By working off site in the cloud colleagues can collaborate on projects at any time of day (or night) which can massively increase output. 

Perhaps the ideal combination for maximum productivity would be normal office life supported by out of hours connectivity. This would retain the flexibility offered by home working, and confer the benefits of being in the same room.   

Charles Black is chief executive of AIM-listed Nasstar plc, a cloud computing company.

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