For more than a decade, Yahoo has successively tried to hire, fire and acquire its way back to its dot-com-era dominance, without success. If anything, Yahoo needs to be less efficient if it hopes to match the success of Google’s famous “20 percent time,” the program that serendipitously produced such projects as Gmail and Street View. Proximity is also essential for the formation, sharing and refinement of new ideas — hence the “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings” cited in the memo.
(Ironically, given the suburban campus of Yahoo — and Google, and Facebook — the person who persuasively made the case for this was Jane Jacobs, whose arguments in "The Economy of Cities" were borrowed by economists like Robert Lucas and Paul Romer, both of whom used cities to explain the role of innovation and information “spillovers” in economic growth.)
If new ideas are really what Mayer is after, then canceling working from home is a half-baked idea — but only half. Rather than requiring potentially hundreds of employees to commute daily to Yahoo’s offices, she should allow them to cowork instead. In fact, she should demand it.
“Coworking” describes the practice of working alongside someone who technically isn’t a colleague. A practice started as a haven for freelancers who didn’t want to work from home but refused to get a 9-to-5 job has caught on with multibillion-dollar companies. As I describe in the current issue of Fast Company, companies including AT&T, Steelcase, Zappos and Plantronics have begun stationing some of their best teams outside the mother ship in the hunt for new ideas.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., Steelcase and three local suburban companies — Amway, Meijer and Wolverine Sporting Goods — have moved their product, design and business development teams into a Grid70, a corporate coworking space downtown, where they share research and advice. AT&T has opened satellite R&D centers in Tel Aviv, Palo Alto and Plano, Texas, collectively known as the Foundry, where its engineers toil beside those from partners like Ericsson and aspiring startups. Cisco acquired one of those firms, Intucell, for $475 million last month.
Coworkers who have taken the plunge appear to love it, too. According to the third annual Global Coworking Survey by Deskmag, a German publication, 71 percent of respondents said their creativity had increased since joining, and 62 percent said their standard of work had improved. Rather than be distracted by (scheduled) meetings, 68 percent said they were able to focus better, and 64 percent said they could better complete tasks on time.
Mayer isn’t wrong to require her employees to work in close quarters with other smart people. Her only mistake is in thinking they should do within the company, rather than outside it.
Photo by JD Lasica via Flickr