THE BLOG

Remote Working, Red Herring

12/04/2013 17:36 | Updated 12 June 2013

The ban on home-working at Yahoo! by its CEO, Marissa Meyer last month, resulted in a twitterstorm of indignation. Hot on her heels, Best Buy has also stopped a programme which had been introduced back in 2005 allowing employees to work when and where they chose. Both companies are in need of a pick-me-up and both cite the need for human beings to collaborate and collide as drivers of prosperity.

But simply banning home-working is a blunt instrument that risks missing the point altogether. I've seen some terrific working practices that promote innovation, efficiency and engagement amongst co-workers - whether you work from home or not.

First, lets take a look at the concept of 'office' and 'home' - many people working from home or the office forget that their customers make decisions to buy, shop and consume in their own spaces - places that are very different from the office or our homes. As such, we at ?What If! hold innovation meetings and do as much work as we can in the spaces where our clients' customers are choosing and consuming. We've worked in cafes, buses, front rooms and even supermarket aisles. Interestingly, last Christmas, I bumped into the MD of John Lewis, Andy Street. He was helping out at the tills on the Oxford Street branch and somehow I don't think the 'remote/home' argument was a consideration for him.

Next, let's take a look at work practices that unlock passion. Amazon and its newly-acquired baby, Love Film, promote 'Pizza Teams'. This allows work to be completed by small teams who are dedicated to the end result. This way, instead of moving the ownership of a project between various teams, a small multi-skilled team (small enough to share a pizza), stick with a project from start to finish. Similarly, W L Gore, famous for off-the-scale colleague engagement scores, fights hard to keep the size of any internal group to no more than a couple of hundred heads. Both are deliberate policies that fly in the face of efficiency but reap the rewards of an altogether more powerful business driver- passion.

It can be hard to be objective about how well you are doing at work. Most of the time we're steeped in 'delivering', it's all too easy to get wrapped up with operations and deadlines - somehow we never look up and take a good look at ourselves; how am I doing? Is this really the right place for me?. It can be helpful to have someone outside of work to decide if you work in a good place or not. This is something we strongly believe in at ?What If! and encourage bringing the 'home' into work by hosting 'Friends and Family Evenings'; which have proved to be very popular. The format is simple - bring you Mum and Dad, grandparents, kids, friends - even hot date - into work once a year. We show off all we have achieved, we remind the massed ranks of loved ones how great our colleagues are - it's an emotional event and turns the idea of hiding away at home on its head.

The almighty irony of demanding people to work at work is the 'cubicle'. Or at least what they represent. Robert Prost, the inventor of the cubicle apologised for his creation as a 'Monolithic Insanity'. If people are going to 'work at work' then the office needs to be a hot bed of collision and collaboration and not just a space for isolated workers. A great example is Zappos, the world's number one shoe retailer, who allows its workers to design their workspace anyway they want. Similarly, Pixar, famously positioned one male and female toilet (obviously a single door to each with lots of facilities) in the centre of its 3,000 person office. This allows interaction between teams and encourages everyone to bump into each and have collisions of ideas. In the ?What If! office we have reinvented the tea lady, Claudia. When she's about the whole office stops and takes a break to chat with others.

Finally, an argument which has been raised by the indignant twitterati following Meyer's announcement is that home-workers don't know each other, so what's the point of coming in to work with strangers. This is nuts. Successful companies work hard to encourage relationships to form between colleagues across departments. A prime example is Innocent, the famous smoothie maker, which runs a number of after-work clubs; a cake club, a wine club, a cheese club, to name a few. This allows workers to socialise in a relaxed environment over an activity everyone enjoys and without having the job title and issues which go with 'work'. It then makes it a lot easier to call Dave or Lucy in manufacturing for a bit of extra help. Innovation at work relies on a myriad of smiles, warm handshakes and favours like these. Whether you work at home or not, creating the opportunity to meet and just be 'social' is critical.

So rather than debating whether home-working is right or wrong, companies should be unlocking passion, working in places their customers are, bringing home into work, encouraging 'interest-based' socialising and making work spaces as serendipitous as possible - these are the real drivers of innovation and productivity.

Matt Kingdon is the founder of innovation company ?What If! and the author of 'The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organisations'