Why 'coworking' would bring fresh ideas to Yahoo

Editor's note: This story is republished with permission from Next American City.

Yahoo’s decision to revoke its employees’ right to work from home has enraged urbanists and feminists alike. The memo explaining the decision — issued last Friday and subsequently leaked to the tech reporting website All Things D — cited the need to be “physically together” to turn the faltering search giant around:

To become the absolute best place to work, 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. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.

Without meaning to, Yahoo has ignited a debate about proximity’s role in innovation and work-life balance — both fueled in part by the persona of its 37-year-old CEO, Marissa Mayer, who is seen as both a feminist role model (she took over the company while pregnant with her first child), and as the most prominent Googler-in-exile, remaking her new company in her old control-freak image. Working-from-home mothers have accused Mayer of dragging them back to the Stone Age, while the sociologist Richard Florida has spent this week fulminating about Silicon Valley’s “nerdistans” and their crimes against both cities and the creative class.

“Amazing leap,” he tweeted. “Work from home = low productivity + low interaction. Work from office = high productivity + hi[gh] interaction. MEASURE IT.”

Some have. MIT Media Lab visiting scientist Ben Waber and a team from IBM closely measured the output of 161 programmers working across 20 teams. Remote groups were 8 percent less likely than teams working in close proximity to communicate about critical bottlenecks in the code, leading to delays.

“For Yahoo, then, this means their workforce becomes about 3 percent more effective with the stroke of a pen,” Waber wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Using sensor-studded employee badges that measure the length of conversations and the number of participants, Waber has found that simply increasing the size of tables of the cafeteria will improve employee performance, because large tables lead to larger social networks and a faster flow of ideas within the company.

But what if higher productivity isn’t what Yahoo needs?

Next page: Coworking fosters creativity