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Opinion

Working at Home: Mayer May Be Right

Marissa Mayer at Techonomy 2011

Does proximity matter for innovation?

Marissa Mayer thinks it does, and has been getting chastised for it. The Yahoo CEO recently ordered her fellow Yahooligans to stop working from home and come into the office. She believes that proximity creates a better atmosphere for innovation. Yahoo’s human resources chief Jackie Reses explained in a memo: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

But that’s not where we’re supposed to be heading in the age of the Internet. Technology has been on a centuries-long quest to eliminate the need for proximity in business, art, and ideas. Mail, trains, the telegraph, the telephone, cars, jets, fax machines, and now the Internet have made it increasingly unimportant to always have everybody in the same place in order to create stuff.

In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman argued that on a hyper-connected planet, everyone everywhere can work together on equal footing, without boundaries of office walls or national borders. In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott showed that companies that exist as open global virtual networks can innovate better and faster than a traditional sealed-up corporation.

Both of those books sold pretty well.

The real catalyst for ideas is not proximity, per se, but a kind of free-flowing connectedness, says Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From. Now, connectedness used to require proximity, because there was no other way to do it. Writers gathered in certain Paris cafes in the early twentieth century and their discussions spurred better ideas in all of them. Car people gathered in Detroit, movie people in Hollywood, tech people in Silicon Valley. College campuses were always places designed to pull in smart people and force them to interact. These personal connections allowed fragments of ideas, bits of information, and serendipitous discoveries to fuse into important innovations.

But, Johnson writes, more of all of these connections and ideas and information and discoveries make for more innovation. Paris cafes were limited by the number of people who could get there. Even a Yahoo or a whole Silicon Valley has its limitations. The Internet blows through all of that. If companies use email, chat, video calls, and collaborative online workspaces to have free-flowing and rich human connections across all humanity—history shows they’ll out-innovate companies that don’t.

The catch, though, is whether the connections can indeed be rich and free-flowing over today’s technology.

In fact, what may still be missing is the kind of informal high-bandwidth all-day connection you really only get when you sit in the same room with other people. In a study about proximity in research labs, Harvard’s Isaac Kohane found that proximity led to more breakthrough ideas even in the Internet age. “The closer you are to one another, the more likely you are to talk to each other in non-regimented, non-orchestrated moments,” Kohane reported. “A lot of the interesting ideas happen during conversations when there’s no agenda.”

That’s pretty much what Mayer is saying at Yahoo. She wants those off-agenda conversations. We might be at an interesting inflection point in connectedness—when proximity almost doesn’t matter, but still does. The technology of today still isn’t replicating human interaction. The ideal situation might be a dash of Mayer (humans in the same room) spiced with Tapscott (constant open connections to the outside world).

Sooner or later technology will render offices and campuses and regional hubs unnecessary. Just not yet. For all the grief Mayer is getting, and as much as her edict seems to fight the Internet culture, she may have a point.

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