Future of Work

Can creative thinking thrive in the office?

It can no doubt save the company money in office furniture and maybe even office rent, but does home working optimise creativity?

Working from home has lost its revolutionary status. It used to be seen as progressive, something forward thinking companies did. It was predicted that emails and Skype meetings would become the main method of colleague communication and remote working would be the norm.

But since Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer banned employees from working from home the practice has been thoroughly debated. She said in a memo to staff: "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home…..We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together".

At first glance, Mayer’s attitude could seem controlling, untrusting: not key ingredients for promoting creative thinking or a climate for sharing ideas.

Guardian writer Emma G Keller called the memo ‘offensive’ and said Mayer’s stance was from a ‘bygone era’. Keller wants the flexibility and lifestyle home working affords her, punctuated with brief spells in the office to speak to colleagues. It’s a mature arrangement, she says, not too subtly classing the alternative as immature.

Roger Philby of The Chemistry Group says Mayer is right. He says his 'collision theory' is similar to the idea used by Steve Jobs, who asked for Apple’s toilets to be built in the middle of the HQ so people from different departments would have more chance of bumping into each other, talking and influencing each other’s ideas. Expertise is not so easily or fittingly shared by email or conference call.

But can we tell which option promotes creativity? We all know the feeling of wanting to shut out a noisy office or turn away time-consuming colleagues. With home working still relatively new for many organisations, maybe it is too early for most participating employees to have worn out the novelty and yearn for an inspiring work-based chat over a cup of tea in the office canteen.

For those who like to build their thoughts in isolation before sharing them with peers, an office can feel threatening to the creative process. Likewise, those who thrive on throwing a concept out to colleagues in order to develop it can feel lost, kept hanging, in a business that promotes remote working, or telecommuting. How do you cater for the lone worker without shutting them away, leaving them as accessible as they would be if working from home?

Twitter was vocal on the subject. Didier Hilhorst, product design at Flipboard, said:

Don’t force people to work in an office. Create an office people want to work in. Stick versus carrot. Carrots are tasty.— Didier Hilhorst (@didierh) February 26, 2013

Office planning can no doubt impact motivation and productivity, and Google’s HQ is the best example with its focus on play and space, but is it enough to get employees on their morning commute.

From the tangible to the abstract, some raised the issue of trust. The Independent’s argument against stated: ‘No matter how hard an employee works from home, chances are their office-hassled manager will presume they get away with an outrageous amount of skiving’  while Management Today said trust is essential. Office or home, the feeling your boss thinks you are unproductive can have mixed outcomes.

For a company like Yahoo and an executive who hailed from Google, it’s unlikely the ban on home working will be at the cost of innovation and idea generation. How this will be achieved is yet to be seen.

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