Contributors

Workforce Cubed

“Can we have class outside today?”
 
 
I was among the most frequent posers of this question to my teachers—from the elementary grades straight through high school—whenever the weather turned warm. I just wanted a break from the tedium. But, as it turns out, granting such a request is not always an invitation to daydreaming and cloud counting. Variety and flexibility in environment, according to emerging research in the neurosciences, can create a “stickier” cerebral palette for the student.
 
 
For some activities, for some lessons, at some times, breaking out of the four walls of the classroom can measurably improve engagement and learning. That’s obvious for, say, many botany lessons, and it also applies to a lot of independent study, where the whole point is for the student in question to wriggle free from the row upon row of rote learning.
Of course, you’re not going to perform certain science experiments anywhere but at a lab table. Many history lessons require everyone looking at the same big map, while sitting in a chair and taking notes. And weather plays its part.
 
 
The reality is that providing such flexibility can work very well. But it depends on the circumstance.
 
 
Just like working from home. A nurse typically can’t do it. Nor can a dishwasher repairman. Ditto any job where real-time collaboration is inherent to the task at hand. As Woody Allen famously observed: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
 
 
I doubt that mere office “presence” was the point of departure for Marissa Mayer, when the newly ensconced Yahoo, Inc., CEO in February announced a ban on telecommuting at her company. The memo, sent from Executive Vice President of People and Development Jackie Reses, did its best to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear: “We can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.” But the line convinced few. (Did Marie Antoinette hear “energy and buzz” from her open cart as she was steered through the streets of Paris?) Anyway, come June, working from home will be verboten, and “Yahoos” must have a good excuse if they don’t show up at the office.

It’s easy to pillory Mayer. Yes, she had just returned to work herself only two weeks after giving birth, so she at least put on a show of sharing the same cake that she was “letting” her workers eat. On the other hand, she built a nursery adjoining her office. So, even though she paid for that personally, it’s more as if she’s having her cake and eating it too. Will she allow workers to plunk down their nannies and kids in the adjoining cube?

All that said, the reality is that Mayer is facing a turnaround of staggering proportions. Her company has seen its market cap plummet from $125 billion in 2000 to $25 billion today. Google’s revenue per employee is more than twice Yahoo’s. That raises the question of whether Mayer, a former Google exec herself, is simply matching the workplace policy rigor of her competition.

Uh, no.

Google CFO Patrick Pichette recently addressed the question before an Australian audience: “The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’ And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’ . . . There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”
 
 
On the other hand, officially, many Google staffers are actually encouraged to work at home: “We do not have a formal policy,” a recent company statement read, “and leave Googlers to use good judgment.”

That’s why, in the wars of workways, Best Buy won the news cycle. A week after Yahoo’s announcement, the big box retailer said that it, too, was ending a flexible work program. But unlike Yahoo’s blanket policy, Best Buy will allow some of its 4,000 non-store employees to telecommute or set flexible schedules. It’s just that now they’ll have to formally consult with a manager.

Makes sense. Best Buy will make its efficiency and productivity decisions on a case-by-case basis. It will be interesting to see in the coming months whether Queen Marissa continues to declare: “Let them eat cube.”

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