I was talking with Jennifer Magnolfi, a leading proponent of the new thinking behind workplace design and its impact on innovation, creativity, and work culture. Since I had her on the line, I thought I’d get her take on Marissa Mayer’s motivations for the recent Yahoo ‘no remote work’ edict.
Stowe Boyd: I wanted to take a minute to get your thoughts about Marissa Meyers ‘no remote work’ edict. it’s not in effect yet, it will be going into effect in June. There’s all sorts of controversy about it but I think the biggest question is does it represent a step backward to the panopticon notion that workers have to be watched in order to be productive?
Jennifer Magnolfi: Yes, of course I’m familiar with the case. There’s been a storm online of responses: critics and supporters alike have shared their opinions. From my perspective I wouldn’t attribute to this business decision to a broader statement of about the way we should work in the 21st century. I would imagine this to be a more specific business tactic, serving a near-term strategy to reinvent and bring the company forward to a degree of innovation that hasn’t been present there in a while.
Boyd: I think that’s the most generous interpretation I’ve seen. Various entrepreneurs are saying she has a problem, her house is on fire, and she has to put it out. The fact that she believes pouring water over the building is the best thing to do now doesn’t mean she wants it soaking wet for the rest of all time.
Magnolfi: I just got back from Las Vegas where I worked with another business leader of a tech company who is making a very specific, conscious investment in the importance of the physical environment of the culture. At Zappos, Tony Hsieh sees that as having strategic importance for the future of the business. It is widely known that this is what Tony has brought to his company. And to the world of business management — from a purely research-based perspective — it sounds really contrary to the mainstream view. And many people outside of Yahoo think companies benefit from the concept of worker mobility.
This is one of the biggest shifts in technology, and that has caused shifts in business culture, and in the social contract between employees and employers. From a purely research perspective there is no doubt that the potential for increasing knowledge creation, or the probability of increasing knowledge creation (which just means the creation of new ideas) is much higher when you are able to combine digital space interaction and physical space interaction. When you can combine the serendipity or the seemingly random knowledge streams you have online to offline, and to develop a ‘community of work’: it’s obviously a tremendous asset.
Boyd: I agree to the extent that you are looking at it micro-economically, relative to a single business for a short period of time.
Magnolfi:: I don’t think Yahoo’s internal strategy has been disclosed. I certainly haven’t come across it. It strikes me that it makes sense that one of the tactics that Mayer is deploying — at a specific moment in time — to reignite or accelerate a certain type of performance. I just can’t imagine the company or certainly Ms Meyer isn’t aware of the potential mobile technology has. Given her previous track record, I’m a little less shocked by this. For a quite a bit of time now, I’ve been studying the potential and actual benefits of certain types of interactions being augmented in the physical environment.
Boyd: The term I use is concidensity: by increasing the density of people you are increasing the probability of coincidence, or serendipity.
Magnolfi: That’s a really good term, it’s a really fun term. I think if you are in that position, why wouldn’t you leverage that asset? I guess that’s the question I would ask, not knowing the internal context. I guess I’m not as harsh a critic of that, since it’s a tactical move. I don’t think it means more than that at this point.
Yes, I think coincidensity is a useful (and fun) term, one that I stole outright from Matt Biddulph, formerly of Dopplr. And I have to grant that Mayer is trying to make a cultural shift: specifically trying to get a culture that has been running in a fast-and-loose, networked way to a more tight-and-slow, collective mindset.
Mayer thinks that sort of culture is what is needed to turn the boat at Yahoo, and, grant you, she might be right. But it is running cross-grained against a number of newly instituted cultural work norms related to the value of higher individual autonomy, results-oriented work, and application of social and mobile tools to support distributed, disconnected, and decentralized work.