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Collaboration, Innovation and Solitude: The Debate



You can no longer work from home.


That was the gist of the memo that Yahoo employees received from their new CEO, Marissa Mayer, a few weeks ago. Mayer hails from Google, which is renowned for a playful work environment and has centralized office locations around the world where their employees are expected to show up (working from home is only granted in special circumstances). The trend, and expectation, of working remotely has been growing and is often regarded as a perk by potential employees wanting more work-life balance. It’s also a way for employers to attract and retain employees. Some companies, however, still resist this trend fearing that they will lose control over their employees’ work and work habits. And with Yahoo’s recent switch to an in-person office, perhaps the trend will begin to swing.

According to this New York Times article about Yahoo’s decision, one researcher has found that people working from home are likely to be “more productive but less innovative”—suggesting that collaboration is one of the keys to creativity. Anyone who has worked in an office environment has heard this before: often the best ideas or the most productive meetings are those that happen informally over lunch, a walk, bumping into a colleague in the hallways of the office, or the ubiquitous brainstorming session. It is hard to argue with the success of Google, and the subsequent hardship of Yahoo…but I’m going to anyway.

Prior to returning to school this year, I spent over a decade of my working life divided between traditional office environments and a home office. My observation of “collaborative office environments” vs. working remotely comes down to this: it depends entirely on the individual. While I believe there is value in having engaged and excited colleagues to work with and bounce ideas off of, I do not believe that forcing people to work in a highly collaborative, open office space is the most suitable for every personality. For some, being restricted to working in one large, physically open environment can actually limit creativity. There has been a lot of discussion in recent media about introverts and their preferences and contributions in the work place (for a great TED Talk on introverts, creativity, and the workplace click here). Introverts require longer periods of time on their own to come up with ideas, to plan and to recharge their social batteries. While a typical brainstorming session works well for an extrovert’s need for people, discussion and collaboration, introverts (unless given a chance to think about the session beforehand) are often the ones that do not contribute on the fly during those meetings. Not because they don’t have any good ideas, are not engaged, or antisocial, but because they need the extra time to think their thoughts through before sharing. As a full-fledged introvert, my most creative ideas often come after my brain has a lengthy amount of time to chew on it. They may become better ideas once I am able to get feedback from a colleague or classmate, but the beginning of that process is essential.

Being forced into a world of constant collaboration and open work environments can sideline the creativity of a large portion (some experts say up to one third) of society. To get the best cross-section of ideas from creative thinkers, it is key to recognize the individual and their working condition needs. Being cognizant of people who need a quiet and (mostly) solitary environment increases the chance of their input to be far more imaginative.

So what are your thoughts about Yahoo’s decision to move towards a centralized office system? We’re interested in hearing from you! Please head over to our Facebook page and leave your comments regarding this post.