Get Physical – Spark Innovation and Unleash Creativity

Yahoo! created a buzz when their memo “Lets get physical” reached its employees. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” reads the memo to employees from HR head Jackie Reses. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Soon all over the internet, journalists and bloggers alike found a new punching bag – questioning the logic and seemingly absurd behavior. No one expected this in the age of super connectivity, not the least from a silicon valley tech giant. The issue of working from home has been a controversial one always, with some certain that working at home is the way to go for the future while skeptics questioning its impact on productivity.

Company policies promoting working from home have been known to boost employee morale and productivity as it definitely brings more flexibility to employees. Certain ground rules help to prevent abuse of this privilege and help to create a win-win situation for employers and their employees. Marissa Meyer’s is a new age CEO. Why then she is going back to the stone age and not okay with people working remotely. Doesn’t she want her employees to be happy and productive? With Web 2.0 , don’t we have the technology now that anyone can be connected from anywhere and still do everything expected of them. There is no doubt a smart CEO like Marissa Meyer knows her facts well. So what prompted her to go in this direction? Digging deeper into this, an interesting aspect hit me.

Productivity might not be the biggest problem on Yahoo CEO’s hands, Innovation could be. A company that  is fast becoming irrelevant needs to re-invent itself completely to stay in the game. With survival at stake, innovation is more important than productivity.

Julián Limón Núñez and his team while doing his research project found out that the single most mentioned innovation source was the random hallway conversation. They discovered that creativity sparks during lunch conversations or when employees sneak into someone else’s screen. Once meetings are over, employees have a chance to quickly chat in the hallway and jump into others. Virtual teams could miss a lot of these opportunities. Once the virtual meeting is over, there is no chance to quickly chat about something or grab someone for lunch or a quick coffee to discuss “really important stuff”. Satyasiba Das and Håkon Finne studied the inter relationships of innovation and co-location scientifically and summarized their results in paper titled “Innovation and Co-location“. In this connection, they said, co-locative factors play a crucial role.

A hint of this line of thinking is given by Jackie in the memo “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” She is bang on the target. This is where innovation happens.

Not to say that it cannot happen remotely, but the fastest way to come up with brightest ideas is by putting a few talented people into a room together. It is common sense summed up excellently in the line from the memo “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home

Yahoo at this point of time needs those bright ideas and needs them really fast for survival.

Working from home is OK when you need to do routine stuff – answer regular customer support queries, fix minor bugs, do routine administrative tasks. But when it comes to creative thinking, brainstorming and the like , its best to be together as much as a possible – physically.

When you think from this perspective, “Lets get physical” does make sense when innovation is top on the agenda.

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..