Yahoo, Tele-whatever, and the Limits to Technology

By Doug Mohney March 07, 2013

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ask Yahoo employees to come into the <Horrors!> office to work, rather than telecommute. Suddenly, everyone from feminists to TMC senior Peter Bernstein want her head on a pole, wrapping this into a big personal rant about her, how this offends working mothers and yadda-yedda-yedda. Bernstein also told TMC head honcho Rich Tehrani this wasn't a trend.

Yesterday, Best Buy is now stepping back from telecommuting, according to news reports.

Do two large companies make a trend? I am willing to bet we see a couple more companies "come in from the cold" and start bringing back group-centric work environments.

Consider the call back to the office a reality check of sorts, reminding us that technology is not a panacea to productivity ills. For Best Buy and Yahoo, having a distributed work force just doesn't work. Since both companies are suffering from downturns, you can't shoot senior management to figuratively circle the wagons; in Yahoo's case, I suspect they should have pulled the plug on broad-based remote workers a couple of years.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggests that grouping smart people together stimulates innovation. In "Collaboration at the spark at the water cooler," Cohen points out that Bell Labs brought together a critical mass of different types of scientists and encouraged them to get together. The result gave us the transistor, lasers and cell phones, just to mention a few things.

 Does Google, the ultimate statistical control-freak company (which ran over Yahoo in the search engine world), want you in the office? The Apple iPhone and iPad and other i-Goodies-to-be-named weren't created via video conference, but by groups of people working long hours together.

Yes, I know for some people telecommuting is wonderful, but it's time to step back from this one-size-fits-all mentality on applying the same solution to every worker in every office and thinking it's a magic wand to improve productivity, make workers more happy and save the environment all at the same time.

If I sound jaded and/or curmudgeonly, it's because I'm having a flashback to the days of yesteryear (late 1990s to early 2000s) when "Virtual Trade Shows" were the next big thing. You'd never have to step out of your office. Everything could be done online, from looking at products to attending seminars and panels.

So, how many virtual trade shows do you remember? How many real-world events are you planning to go to this year?

Live events, such as ITEXPO in Las Vegas this August, bring together people for the intention of exchanging information. Meals, receptions and random hall encounters provide the opportunity for serendipity -- as Wikipedia defines it, a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.

The big picture point here is everything has its limitations, be it telecommuting or videoconferencing or virtual trade shows. For psychological and behavioral reasons coded in our DNA, many of us are going to need, want and desire settings such as trade shows to make face-to-face contacts to find new customers and close business.

If Mayer is right, Yahoo should become a more productive company. Let's see what happens over the next 12 months and maybe talk about it on a panel at ITEXPO.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

Contributing Editor

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