Does a Collaborative Culture Require Proximity?

Posted by: in Corporate and Strategy on March 13, 2013

The business world is abuzz lately with “collaboration.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer stirred controversy and discussion last week, both inside the company and out, when she issued her edict that will effectively end all employees’ work-from-home. Yahoo needs to rebuild the culture it lost over the years by creating a more collaborative environment, which can only happen, she insisted, if everyone is in the office every day.

Her industry peers at companies like Google and Apple appear to agree. Google, for instance, recently introduced its Frank Gehry-designed “Bayview” expansion of Googleplex, a key feature of which is that no individual employee will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other staffer.

The idea, according to a spokesman, is that such proximity encourages and builds collaborative behaviors and spontaneity that, in turn, lead to greater innovation and creativity.

Before his death, Steve Jobs similarly talked about the importance and value of collaboration and spontaneous encounters between employees. In the context of introducing the design for Apple’s new headquarters, he said that some of the best ideas to come out of Apple were the result of spontaneous encounters and conversations in hallways and break rooms.

The Value of Collaboration

A collaborative culture is one where engaged employees work together toward a common purpose. People bring their unique skills and backgrounds together as a team or unit and contribute collectively toward a greater outcome, to fulfill the organization’s vision.

Conversely, where the notion of collaboration is foreign, employees compete with one another, resulting in dysfunction and redundancies. In a collaborative culture, the organization realizes multiple benefits, including:

  • Greater clarity about what is needed for the organization to succeed
  • Inclusive decision-making
  • Fresh thinking and innovative solutions
  • Efficient, concerted actions in the service of shared, measurable goals
  • Effective time management
  • Greater trust, and broader engagement

So assuming Marissa Mayer and her peers are right, is physical proximity a requirement of effective collaboration? Ironically, the same day as her announcement, the Census Bureau released a study that shows a steady rise in the number of people engaged in at-home work today in America. Some 13.4 million people – about 9.4% of the workforce – worked at least one day per week at home in 2010, an increase over 1997 data that showed 7% of the workforce did.

Case in point, employees at a client company of ours are now occupying a gleaming new, glass-encased headquarters building, trying to adapt to a new concept of “workplace.” The building was designed for 110% occupancy. No one has a permanently assigned desk, office or landline phone number.

Rather, people – including the CEO and his senior management team – work in large, open areas at long tables among their function or department peers, using laptops and mobile phones wherever they may sit on a given day. Rooms of varying sizes are available for meetings or conference calls.

The design is a physical manifestation of the evolution of the modern workplace, acknowledging that people do work from home on occasion. Others travel. The building design team’s analysis said it could safely anticipate that all employees would never show up on any given day. Why accommodate them all every day?

But in such cases – which we know have become the norm – is collaboration possible without every employees walking distance from one another, as some insist? Enter modern technology, which is largely responsible for allowing people such freedom in choosing where they work.

Achieving a collaborative way of life within an organization where everyone is under the same roof is one thing. It’s an altogether different matter when people are scattered around the globe or across the country in multiple locations – never mind the work-at-home employees.

Using Technology to Sustain Collaboration

Web and video conferencing enables real-time face-to-face web conferences, bringing the additional advantage of seeing people’s faces while we talk with them, enabling everyone to catch the subtleties of facial inflections, like smiles and frowns, that add meaning to one’s words. It also enables the group simultaneously to examine documents under discussion.

Similarly, webinars facilitate online collaboration for larger groups and company-wide meetings such as leadership town halls and All Hands meetings. Webinar leaders – be it the CEO, a division head or an internal expert – can present new initiatives, new products, new ideas or approaches.

Some webinar solutions offer recording and archiving functions that enable employees who want a second viewing or who may have missed the initial meeting the opportunity to view the recording at their leisure.

If used regularly and consistently by all team members, internal social media can also stimulate and sustain collaboration, regardless of employees’ proximity to one another.

So while we can appreciate Marissa Mayer’s desire to bring all Yahoo employees back to headquarters, improved collaboration can’t be seen as the real reason. Rather, the real motive is more likely her need to bring some order to a chaotic situation.

Collaboration occurs not because people have been forced into a single common location, but because a conscious decision was enacted to make it happen and then the right things done to sustain it.

As the March 5 New York Times article noted several paragraphs deep, Yahoo had become a company “where employees were aimless and morale was low.” Ms. Mayer’s immediate fix is physical proximity. That’s her call. Time will tell whether it was the right approach. Any improvement in collaboration would be a bonus, but not a rationale for her action.

By: Jack LeMenager

Jack is a director in the Corporate & Strategy practice of WCG, a unit of W2O Group.

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One Response

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  1. Anonymous said

    I wholly agree with Mayer’s direction and, similarly, the Googleplex restructuring. While there are those select, brilliant few whose innovation is stifled by others, who work better alone or with a few like-minded people, most smart individuals learn how to rise to the occasion when surrounded by other smart colleagues. This is a benefit of professional organizations, think tanks, brain labs, innovation centers and even, ideally, universities. The past decade has proven that telecommuters can be efficient and do their job well, so I’m sure this wasn’t an easy decision for Mayer. But if a Yahoo wants to change/reinforce culture, drive innovation and become the agile industry leader it desires to be, then their employees need to see one another, build of each other’s ideas, and feel encouraged to grow … together.

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