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Editorial: Out of the Office; The Art of Choosing a Workplace

Working the assembly line here in the opinion factory can be a mind-numbing experience, as will be all too apparent to regular readers of this space. So who could blame us for occasionally day-dreaming about working at home?

After all, the tools to do so are ready at hand, consisting mainly of computer with Internet access, email and cell phone. Think how much more productive we could be without constant interruption, without the police scanner crackling in our ears, without meetings to sleep through, but with the flexibility to walk down and get the mail to clear our head mid-editorial. Well, OK, maybe not the mail for much longer, but how about taking the dog for a walk?

Anyway, this particular idyll was shattered last week by news that Yahoo, under new chief executive Marissa Mayer, a Google alum, is abolishing its work-at-home policy and ordering everybody back into the office. The reason? The company has concluded that face-to-face interaction among employees promotes collaboration and thus innovation. Or as the memo announcing the decision put it: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.” (We are bound to point out that such encounters also can result in the waste of prodigious amounts of time, but perhaps that’s the price one pays for innovation.)

Anyway, The New York Times, ever alert to a trend, reports that Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: “whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration.” We’re inclined to think that the answer is yes to both, or rather, pick your poison. (It should be noted that this question arises only in connection with certain occupations, since many jobs require the worker’s actual presence. Think electrician or plumber or carpenter, for instance.)

The productivity argument is that with fewer distractions and the flexibility to work when it best suits them physically and mentally, home workers can get through more work in a day. That’s plausible. Think about all the time squandered by actually getting dressed and going to the office, when you could just plunk yourself down in front of the computer for a couple of hours with your morning coffee before your co-workers are even able to negotiate the snowy commute. So, if a worker is sufficiently self-disciplined to stick to the task at hand without much oversight and the measure of success is the amount of work performed, the home team wins.

On the other hand, if said worker is also trying to juggle child- or aging-parent care, the potential for distraction at home is acute.

As to innovation, the mental process formerly known as creativity, it’s undoubtedly true that the friction of new idea rubbing against new idea sometimes sparks something recognizable as an advance. But we’re also aware that some of the best minds do their best work when confined to solitary contemplation. Not all good thinkers are stimulated by a collaborative approach, and in fact, some find it downright annoying, perhaps all the more so if the opportunities for collaboration are orchestrated rather than serendipitous.

The only thing we can say with assurance is that almost every free-lance writer we’ve ever known, when it came right down to it, said they would have preferred to work in the newsroom rather than at home — perhaps for the sheer stimulation of it all. It can be lonely at the top, even if you’re the boss in your own home office.