The Wall Street Journal "At Work" blog has a terrific post about Marissa Mayer's memo to all Yahoo employees essentially ending telecommuting at the firm. Some people reacted very negatively to her announcement. How could she ban working from home given the proliferation of technologies that enable virtual collaboration? What type of message did this move send to working parents trying very hard to juggle professional and personal commitments responsibly? Would this announcement scare away some terrific talented people?
The blog post points out, however, that there are significant downsides to extensive telecommuting at a firm. The bottom line: Face-to-face interaction does promote more effective collaboration and information sharing in many instances. People do lose the ability to read nonverbal gestures if they are not physically present at meetings. Moreover, many ideas get shared when people bump into one another in the hallways or at the cafeteria. As Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory argues, innovation occurs through the "random collision of unusual suspects" in many cases. We can't design or plan those interactions. However, the right type of working environment at a firm can promote that type of interaction. If many people work from home, they don't have those opportunities to engage with others in unplanned ways.
The challenge, though, is that many people may interpret Mayer's move as a belief that telecommuters are simply not working hard enough outside the office. That interpretation may cause a drop in morale at the firm. In addition, some very talented people may simply not be willing to engage in a lengthy commute each day. Finally, not all jobs are alike. While some tasks require intense collaboration and may benefit from having people in the office together, other jobs may not require frequent interaction with colleagues. Does a blanket policy make sense when work comes in many different forms, and jobs differ significantly in terms of interdependence?