In a recent New Yorker essay "Face Time," James Surowieki defends Yahoo's much maligned decision to eliminate telecommuting for its employees. He identifies serious unintended consequences of working from home:
On the simplest level, telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the kinds of informal interaction that are crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organization. The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliché of business writing, but that doesn’t make it less true. John Seely Brown, an organizational guru who was the director of the Xeroxparc research center for a decade, told me, “Those chance encounters that become evocative turn out to be incredibly important. They allow people to get out of their ruts and think about things that they might otherwise have missed.” Seely Brown worked on a study of Xerox’s copier repairmen. He found that when the men were just hanging out in the coffee room they weren’t wasting time; rather, they were having highly productive conversations about problems encountered on the job (The New Yorker: March 18, 2013).During my planning periods at the high school where I teach English, I hang out in an incredible space that fosters conversations about new ideas called the IDEA:
The Innovation, Discovery, and Engagement Area (IDEA) is a professional development space and a gathering spot designed to foster a community of learners. The IDEA is a flexible area that can be utilized as a formal or informal learning space, a meeting place, and a classroom. It is also fully equipped with a design center to assist students with their technology-infused projects and work.While grading papers at one of IDEA's comfortable tables, I've discovered through "chance encounters" new applications posted on a large monitor on the wall and, more recently, about a new pilot program for one to one computing. IDEA's entire south wall — a white surface for writing on with erasable markers — is filled with brainstorming and designing. IDEA is built for the kind of "hanging out" that engages and feeds my own learning as an educator. Because I'm often face-to-face with Ryan Bretag and Stephanie Bittar, IDEA's technology consultants, I learn a lot from informal conversations with them and overhearing their conversations with people who are creating new curriculum or processes for student learning.
Steve Jobs, too, knew the value of face time, something Walter Isaacson details in his eponymous biography:
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas” (431).How often do we ask each other about what we're doing, especially our co-workers in the far reaches of our shared workplace?
Designing spaces that create this organic, unplanned and emergent mixing of minds is crucial for collaboration and for creating energy and excitement in any organization. Steve Jobs seized the opportunity to design face-to-face space for Pixar Studios that fosters creativity and innovation through spontaneity, curiosity, conversation:
So he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” The front doors and main stairs and corridors all led to the atrium, the café and the mailboxes were there, the conference rooms had windows that looked out onto it, and the six-hundred-seat theater and two smaller screening rooms all spilled into it. “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” Lasseter recalled. “I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one” (430-431).The secret of designing great spaces, then, is to focus on what makes us human, our common narrative as shaped by our minds and our culture. What stories do your work and living spaces tell? How intentional are those spaces? How would you change them to improve your work and life? Isaacson writes that Jobs saw his buildings as cultural structures, as stories or narratives:
Jobs obsessed over every aspect of the new building, from the overall concept to the tiniest detail regarding materials and construction. “Steve had this firm belief that the right kind of building can do great things for a culture,” said Pixar’s president Ed Catmull. Jobs controlled the creation of the building as if he were a director sweating each scene of a film. “The Pixar building was Steve’s own movie,” Lasseter said (430).Does telecommuting, then, disrupt an organization's collective narrative? Does it deny its employees the chance to feel like meaningful actors in an exciting story? Perhaps Jobs's genius lay in building physical spaces for human expression:
The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side. In the seventies computers became a way for people to express their creativity. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science. Michelangelo knew a lot about how to quarry stone, not just how to be a sculptor (Isaacson 567).Jobs also built spaces for formal learning to nourish innovation:
In order to institutionalize the lessons that he and his team were learning, Jobs started an in-house center called Apple University. He hired Joel Podolny, who was dean of the Yale School of Management, to compile a series of case studies analyzing important decisions the company had made, including the switch to the Intel microprocessor and the decision to open the Apple Stores. Top executives spent time teaching the cases to new employees, so that the Apple style of decision making would be embedded in the culture
So once you've established a culture of creativity and innovation by building dynamic physical spaces that support face time and trust, you can build better virtual spaces that support and enhance an organization's great story, powerful thinking spaces embedded in a technological landscape:
Though many have called Yahoo's decision to call their telecommuters back to the office regressive, backward, or old-fashioned, Surowieki's New Yorker essay echoes Steve Jobs's crucial insights about face time:... Jobs emphasized one of the themes of his life, which was embodied by the iPad: a sign showing the corner of Technology Street and Liberal Arts Street. “The reason Apple can create products like the iPad is that we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts,” he concluded. The iPad was the digital reincarnation of the Whole Earth Catalog, the place where creativity met tools for living (Isaacson 494).
The fundamental point is that much of the value that gets created in a company comes from the ways in which workers teach and learn from each other. If telecommuters do less of that, the organization will be weaker. On top of this, there’s evidence that telecommuting can make it hard to foster trust and solidarity—an issue that matters a lot to Yahoo right now. Face time is still the easiest way to build connections...