YAHOO! CEO Marissa Mayer recently shocked the business world by insisting that YAHOO!'s employees come into work instead of working from home. Her decision attacked a strong belief that is held by a growing number of people:
Electronic communication — video conferencing, phone calls and emails — can be a substitute for in-person communication.
If this premise is correct, there is no reason to come to a centralized office or travel to meet with clients, vendors or colleagues. According to this line of thinking, an employee can have the same level of effectiveness working from home, without the company having the expense of providing an office or paying for travel expenses. However, is this true?
In the e-mail to employees, Mayer suggested that working at home does not produce the same results as face to face interactions.
"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. "
I absolutely agree with her premise. A large number of great ideas come out of informal and spontaneous communications, which is one of the benefits of sharing physical space with other people. However, this is only one of the benefits of face to face communication.
When a person travels to see me, particularly from a faraway place, I always try to be prepared for the meeting. Even when there is no formal agenda for a meeting, I try to think about what the person might be interested in talking about or figure out ways in which we can help each other. By flying to see me or even by walking across the hall and knocking on my door, the person is communicating to me that what they have to say is important. Generally, I respond by preparing for the meeting or listening more carefully to what that person has to say.
More Complete Communication
Even video conferences don't provide the same level of information about what a person is thinking or feeling as a face to face meeting. Generally speaking people tend to be more formal and less relaxed when they are on camera. It is also much more difficult to read body language on a video conference than in person.
I have always thought that the five minutes before a meeting starts and after a meeting ends provides as much valuable information as the meeting. During these "off the record" communications, which occur more frequently face to face, people feel more comfortable sharing their true thoughts.
Feeling of Team Membership
In some of the commentary following Marissa Mayer's decision, there has been discussion of the motivational benefits of "coming into work." Employees that come into work feel they are part of a larger group and don't want to disappoint or let down other members of the group. This encourages them to work harder and take more responsibility. I think the feeling of team membership extends beyond just co-workers.
I think it also extends to clients and suppliers. Face to face interaction fosters a greater sense of personal connection. This feeling of personal connection has tangible business benefits. For example, let's say that you are unhappy with a vendor. If the sales representative has established a personal connection, I believe that you would be far more likely to give a warning before transferring business to another vendor. In short, the personal connection makes people more willing to work out problems.
As you can tell, I believe that video conferencing, e-mails and phone calls are not a replacement for meeting in person. This means coming into work and making business trips. While I understand the desire not travel or come into an office, I think from the business point of view asking employees to "show up" or "get on a plane" is logical. Marissa Mayer did the business world a major service by opening up the discussion of this issue.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.