The Real Key to Innovation: A Great Place to Work

In the echo chamber of discussion since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ordered her employees to end telecommuting and move back into the office, there’s been a general consensus that telecommuting may make employees happier, but it’s not always good for the company or—especially—innovation at a company.

The sandwich bar at Google's Mountain View headquarters (Photo by Andy Kuno)

In the echo chamber of discussion since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ordered her employees to end telecommuting and move back into the office, there’s been a general consensus that telecommuting may make employees happier, but it’s not always good for the company or—especially—innovation at a company.

There is something special about a group of people working in the same space on the same set of problems. John Seely Brown found that to be the case at Xerox PARC. IBM designed its Watson research lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., to force people out of offices and into hallways and public spaces. Chance encounters beget serendipitous conversations. Social energy bonds people and stimulates thinking.

Technology has tried to replicate the power of being with people in person while being remote, but has so far failed. We can do a lot in a home office and stay connected in impressive ways that would seem like magic to a worker of 30 years ago. But it’s still not the same.

But if we accept that, let’s accept something else: Valuable knowledge workers do a cost/benefit analysis when it comes to where and how they work. Clearly Yahoo employees were feeling like they were better off working from home than coming to the office. That Mayer had to order a return to the office says a lot: Yahoo didn’t make people feel like they wanted to be there.

Google, Mayer’s old company, goes to great lengths to make the campus a draw—free gourmet food, on-site gym, special events, and a camaraderie that employees would miss if they worked at home. So, employees gladly come to work. Lots of other smart tech companies do the same, or more. SAS, in North Carolina, is the grandaddy of great tech workplaces, going farther than most—even offering on-site health care. The employee turnover rate at SAS: about 3.3%. Tech industry norm: 22%.

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