Friday will be Employee Appreciation Day. It was established as an annual event in 1995 by Recognition Professionals International, in collaboration with Workman Publishing. To celebrate the day, RPI suggests that employers ask employees to “write down six ways you’d like to be rewarded,” while suggesting that bosses schedule lunch dates with their workers and offer them a variety of low-cost gifts and rewards.
Meanwhile, at Yahoo, new-ish chief executive officer Marissa Mayer ushered in this putatively employee-friendly week by having her head of human resources issue a memo instructing “all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! Offices.” The main reason for telling Yahoo’s remote workers to get back to the office by June 1 seems to be Mayer’s belief that for Yahoo to succeed, “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.”
The memo concludes with this call to arms: “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”
But does that assertion have any basis in fact? Is it more than a feeling?
Certainly, it’s a widely held belief that physical proximity is an important enabler of collaboration. According to Shannon McCoy, a University of Maine assistant professor whose work focuses on the organization of interdisciplinary research in academia, “There’s a wealth of research in social psychology pointing to the positive influence of simply being heard (what we call the voice effect). Physical proximity yields opportunities for informal sharing of advice and opinion that might be missed otherwise.”
Isaac Kohane, professor of pediatrics and health science technology at Harvard Medical School, is co-author of a study that suggests the physical proximity of researchers is a “strong predictor of the scientific impact of their research.” And, says Kohane, he was shocked by his own findings.
“At a gut level, if I was told that, I would have said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ The whole idea of the Internet,” he says, “is that we don’t have to be in the same place.” However, when Kohane and his collaborators used “an army of undergrads” to map the physical location of 100,000 co-authors of 33,000 articles published in the life sciences — whether they were in adjacent offices, on the same floor, in the same building, on the same campus, or further removed — they found that the closer the first and last author named on the article were physically, the more often their articles were cited.
In other words, “If you’re closer together, the stuff you publish is more impactful,” Kohane says. “People can collaborate at a distance, but it’s very rare that you see an e-mail or Twitter or Google doc going back and forth where people say, ‘Oh, did you think of this?’ It’s more usual to see, ‘Let’s do this.’ Happenstance, unstructured stuff: you don’t see that happening via electronic media.”
Continues Kohane: “Like many things in society, we’ve seen a pendulum swing. There used to be the tyranny of being onsite at 9 a.m. and if you weren’t, it was a big demerit. Then, the Internet allowed us to be offsite, and that became the norm. Now, perhaps, the pendulum is swinging back to a more productive median.”
But does Mayer’s back-to-the-office order constitute a happy compromise, or is it another pendulum swing toward Kohane’s old-style 9-to-5 tyranny?
Scott Edinger, an expert in organizational performance and founder of Edinger Consulting Group, wrote last summer that an investment firm he worked with found that people who worked remotely were “more engaged and more committed to their work” than people who worked in the office.
Mayer, Edinger believes, may be “pushing on the wrong lever” as she tries to replicate at Yahoo the success she found at Google as employee number 20, and eventually vice president of search products and user experience. Google is right now building a new campus, a new 1.1 million square foot Googleplex that will maximize the possibilities for “the casual collisions of the workforce,” according to David Radcliffe, who is in charge of Google’s real estate.
No employee, Radcliffe said in an interview, will be “more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other.” It’s that emphasis on physical proximity, Edinger suggests, that Mayer is trying to bring to Yahoo, and with it Google’s outsized success.
But neither real estate nor the physical proximity of its workers will solve Yahoo’s plethora of businesses problems — a brand that’s lost its focus and appeal, cluttered and unappealing web pages, the lack of a coherent mobile strategy — and forcing unwilling employees to drag themselves to the office is probably not the answer, either.
McCoy, who believes in the virtues of proximity, also says her research has shown that “having personal control over when and where to work is one of the most consistent predictors of job satisfaction, decreased work stress, psychological well-being, and physical health.”
Is Mayer risking the happiness of the hundreds of workers her edict will affect, and thereby their productivity, in pursuit of an external solution to an internal problem?
“I’ll never argue with success,” says Edinger, “but leadership to me is an umbrella over everything. If leaders do a good job of engaging people, if they inspire and motivate them and create an environment conducive to creativity, they’ll get that whether or not the workers are co-located. Leaders have to be intentional about outreach to people, to bring them close, whether they’re down the hall or across the country.”
Or, as IBM puts it on its “Work/Life Balance” web page, “Work is something you do, not a place you go.”
Mayer should be looking at how her leadership team functions, not at where her employees do their work. Until she gets the leadership part right, moving people around is what Alcoholics Anonymous calls doing a “geographic”: trying a physical solution to a spiritual problem.
It doesn’t work.