Yahoo's ban on working remotely: a creative step for innovation?

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (formerly of Google) has banned remote working for her employees, hoping to find innovation in office interactions. She's the latest example of executives trying to find the source of good ideas.

AP Photo/NBC Peter Kramer
NBC's Savannah Guthrie (l.) talks to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on the 'Today' show Feb. 20. Yahoo's search for innovation has pushed it to ban working remotely for its employees.

If humanity’s progress relies on a constant discovery of new ideas, then count Marissa Mayer as one of its daring pioneers.

The chief executive officer of Yahoo (who jumped from Google) has just ordered employees at her struggling Internet company to stop working remotely and resume daily face time at the office. It’s seen as an innovative step, one designed to boost innovation at Yahoo.

Her move has stirred criticism, however, for reducing the flexibility of Yahoo workers (mainly mothers and fathers) to mix personal and professional time. Nonetheless, the bigger issue is whether Ms. Mayer’s search for the newest way to instill innovation in an organization will be the last word on the perpetual quest to find the source of good ideas.

The need of companies to create the jobs of the future relies more on getting innovation right than on telecommuting or flextime. Experts on innovation still can’t agree on what stirs the creative juices. Yet in the global economy, companies rise or fall more quickly than ever based on their ability to generate new services and products.

Critics of Mayer say companies that allow remote working will attract the creative types. Others, however, point to studies that show workers are less innovative if they work at home, although they are usually more productive. Interacting with others in an office or a lab setting, it seems, pushes people to think more creatively.

At least, that’s the current trend. The Yahoo memo to employees, written by Jackie Reses, director of human resources, claims: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

To be sure, inspiration is not always an “aha moment” by one individual but can often come out of engaging with others. Still, individuals are the vehicles for ideas. They must be nurtured, either through group interaction or in other ways. Perhaps the most popular method requires giving workers the freedom to fail in their ideas.

One reason America has so many inventors is its great tolerance for failure. Just ask researcher show many of their ideas they have stuck in a drawer because the ideas didn’t work.

“We cannot fear failure and create new and amazing things,” says Regina Dugan, a former director of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and now an executive at Google.

Freedom from fear allows thinking to open up to new ideas. It also breaks down the notion of limits on the quantity or quality of ideas. As a report by the Global Creativity Index Creativity notes, creativity “is not a stock of things that can be depleted or worn out, but an infinitely renewable resource that can be constantly improved.”

Yahoo, like many companies, may find that the latest innovation for creating innovation, such as new work arrangements, will stimulate thinking for a while. Flextime at one time was thought to unleash creative work. Now it doesn’t always, if Yahoo is right.

Entrepreneurs often say that “opportunities breed more opportunities.” The same may be true for innovation. A creative idea breeds more creative ideas, and so on. Genius is one part inspiration and ninety-nine parts searching for inspiration.

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