Ordering Yahoo workers back to the office certainly gained its share of critics for Marissa Mayer when instituting this Yahoo policy some 18 months ago now. There are a couple of reasons for me to reflect on this at this point in time. Principally, my upcoming presentation at the Social Business Forum 2014 in Milan at the beginning of July is one. My presentation is entitled “Who would you like to sit near at work?”, and is not unsurprisingly about co-location and collaboration. Here is a sneak preview from an earlier blog post.
The presentation will not be about leading the charge back to the office though. I’ve been presenting at the Open Knowledge social business forums since the very first one in 2008 held in Varese and pioneering what was then called Enterprise 2.0. It was my first introduction to the serious use of twitter (less than 2 years old then) and its use to connect the world to an innocuous event held in a quaint but sleepy town in northern Italy. In recent times I have been providing twitter maps and affinity mapping (feel free to join up) to support networking at the forum. Interestingly, while Open Knowledge provide a rich suite of recorded talks and presentations supporting the forum, my sense is that the forum also provides a rallying point for conversations, led by the abundantly ‘followed’ keynote speakers. The following map emphasizes just how global this twitter audience is. A majority of the participants were nowhere near Milan.
The second ‘event’ prompting my reflections on the topic is a recently submitted doctoral thesis entitled “Creativity and Innovation in Virtual Teams” by Hari Sangha, who I was supervising, and therefore reading his thesis closely. Hari’s research was a case study of his own government agency workplace and the introduction of a new system. His organisation is a mature user of virtual teams technology and he was interested in how well factors like presence, trust, group identity and implementation effectiveness impacted innovation success. Hopefully without stealing Hari’s thunder, he did find that indeed the presence factor for virtual teaming did not interfere with the overall success of the innovation, in his context. What did catch my eye though were some of the comments extracted from his qualitative interviews. Several of his interviewees complained of not having on-site support during the critical “first impressions” installation stage. The “canned online training” fell far short of providing the organisational change support required when convincing an end user of the need to move from the comfort of a well-loved legacy system, to a new “integrated” system. In fact the new system suffered substantial criticism on installation, that took some time to overcome. For me it was evidence that there is definitely a case to choose wisely when to apply both your virtual and co-location initiatives.
The “co-location touch points” tend to occur where the human factors of organisational change substantially outweigh the efficiency of process compliance. In Hari’s context it wasn’t so much about training in the operational aspects of a new system, but “communicating to me why I should be changing in the first place”. To give Marissa Mayer her due, it must have been a shock to come from the highly energised and innovative Google environment to one at Yahoo that had been reduced to something akin to clock watchers. The size of the organisational and cultural change perhaps dictated her mandate. That said, I was intrigued by comments made to us by Lend Lease’s head of workplace Natalie Slessor, that the business case for activity-based working is not principally about space now, but collaborative performance. And its not just about having an environment that staff will be comfortable in attending; but one where staff choose to come to because there is no better place that they would prefer to be, in doing their work; a place where they can collaborate with who they need to collaborate with, at these critical touch point times. No doubt this is something Google did get right from all reports.
While context will often dictate where these touch points are in your business, I’ve had a go at identifying where I think they are in an innovation context:
The Social Business Forum Twitter network is a ‘searching for inspiration’ network and therefore can comfortably work virtually. However, acting on an inspiration to design a new product or identify how to gain a brand new client requires some high touch collaboration and co-operation. Once a design or plan is settled on, the execution of the design/plan etc. could be accommodated by a mature virtual team. The next high touch point is when engaging the ‘early majority’ i.e. key buyers, influential users etc.. Here we need all ‘hands on deck” to rapidly respond to previously unseen or unexpected issues, objections and/or complaints. Inevitably with any innovation there will be issues that will require an agile response from a team of people. Once adoption is assured we can then move back into virtual customer support mode, perhaps even engaging our customers into a social business support community.
So did Marissa Mayer get it wrong? Well maybe just a little. A few months after her policy was introduced she rationalised her decision with a comment: “…. they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” This looks like my first “high touch zone”. But does that have to mean that those doing standard IT builds or providing after sales customer service should be made to feel dictated to? And what about creating an environment where Yahoo staff actually want to show up to by choice?