Starting from Scratch

Author: Aubrey K. Wiete, M.A. | Source: HCI | Published: February 28, 2013

To this day, adorning the windowsill of my parent’s dining room is a triangular (okay, wannabe triangular) clay jar I created at the ripe age of 9 in grade school art class. Its shape, swirled blue/pink/purple color, and enormous hand-crafted clay flower on the lid is a potent reminder of my questionable taste at the time, while also acting as a witness to endurance. After all this time, it’s still standing strong.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer put herself in the midst of a firestorm this week when a memo was leaked that banned Yahoo employees from telecommuting any longer. While the tone of Mayer’s words and channel of communicating this message continues to be heavily debated, others have come to the defense of the mandate, contending that there is irrefutable evidence that being physically present in an office is necessary to working together and building an effective organizational culture.
It’s safe to assume that telecommuting and the presence of virtual, remote workers is a positive trend in the workplace. Some estimate that by 2016, 43% of the worker population will be telecommuters. And this trend has not gone unwarranted by leaders. Some organizations report upwards of 20% increased productivity from their employees, and virtually non-existent turnover as a result of allowing telecommuting. Clearly, there are benefits to embracing workforce flexibility, both in terms of decreased operational costs and enhancing employee engagement.
But, on the other end of the spectrum is the argument for teamwork. Collaboration is a behavior that is frequently tied to improved financial performance, but the practice is heavily reliant on people physically working together in a shared environment. The water-cooler conversations and lunchtime chats with colleagues provide more value than personal life updates. They build relationships among coworkers, instill trust in one another, and establish common ground.
While Yahoo remains a formidable brand, the internal infrastructure of the firm is failing, and has been for some time. That downward spiral is what propelled a new CEO to be appointed to the firm in summer 2012, and also what makes this case far different than if the decree had been issued at a healthier firm.
In an organization starting from scratch – as Yahoo is, in essence, trying to do – the culture, values, and desired behaviors of leaders and employees are malleable. They require collaboration, direction, and focus to come to a clear, unanimous consensus. Like a potter working a pottery wheel, these things need to be thoughtfully designed, created, and improved upon by every person in the organization – and that may very well require being physically present in the office. It’s dirty work, but every employee's got to do it.
It seems that neither extreme – a fully present workforce or a wholly remote one – is most effective in cultivating a productive, collaborative, and mutually beneficial culture. But, without question, the first ingredient for any type of workforce is people. Through their words and actions, individuals create and color the environment in which they work, and initially establishing that brand through consistency and presence is vital. Like a piece of pottery going through the kiln, only after that process is a culture fortified and equipped to handle what the future may bring.