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Impossible to Innovate and Telework? One Professor Says YES. Find Out Why.

All week the DorobekINSIDER will be talking about telework. Last month Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer outlawed telework at her company. The reaction to the news was swift on both sides. With some opponents calling the decision an attack on working mothers.

But John Sullivan a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University says Mayer’s decision had nothing to do with an attack on working mothers, but was a clear push for innovation.

“Everyone has an opinion about this (Mayer’s decision) and in this case almost 95% of people who comment or write about this get it wrong. This has nothing to do with telecommuting, it has to do with becoming more innovative,” said Sullivan.

Yahoo Example

“Yahoo is in deep trouble. They will probably go out of business if something major doesn’t happen. So the new CEO did what Google has already done, what Facebook and Apple have already done, which was, force employees to come to the campus. That’s how innovation occurs. So if your drive is innovation and to improve the company by 10-20% you have to do something drastic,” said Sullivan. “The proof is already there. Stock prices for Yahoo have gone up since the announcement.

Innovation Trumps Efficiency

“Innovation will trump productivity or efficiency every time. We’ve been living in an efficiency world for the past few years. But that is changing. If you look at the most valuable businesses out there Apple is second on the list and third is google. You know people aren’t stupid. So they look at these firms and see their value. They can see that the only way to be like Apple is to be a serial innovator,” said Sullivan.

Serial Innovators

“It comes down to money. The most successful companies do this. Google innovates in phones, searches, maps, you name it. Because the world has changed people copy whatever you do. You have to be a serial innovator because the competition is so intense,” said Sullivan.

Data Not Emotions

“They have plenty of data that shows you can increase collaboration, innovation, speed of decision making if everyone comes to the same place. Telecommuters don’t want to hear that. But it’s not a trend against telecommuting. It is a trend towards innovation. Not every firm needs to do that, but if you notice Best Buy, which developed ROWE (Results Only Work Environment,) killed it, because they are in real trouble. They need people in the office to gear up and become innovative. Anything that gets in the way of innovation is gone. And it turns out that telecommuting doesn’t help innovation,” said Sullivan. “There was a 41% increase in productivity at Best Buy due to ROWE. And they cut the program, because a 41% increase in efficiency doesn’t match the 100% margin in innovation.”

Innovation is the Function of 3 Things

  1. Learning – You learn more when you are surrounded by others.
  2. Collaboration.
  3. Funds.

Is It Possible To Innovate From Afar?

“No,” said Sullivan.

  • First of all it is the speed. If I do some great work and you are next to me, I can say, ‘hey Chris come over here and look at this.’ When you’re not on site, I have to send an email. If I send you 50 emails a day you are going to get totally pissed off. But if I can contact you face-to-face we can probably bang out a solution right there.
  • Second, serendipitous interactions. It turns out it’s not that you’ll run into other engineers/authors or whomever you work with on a daily basis. That happens already, this is you’ll run into someone in HR, Finance, someone in a different division and you’ll collaborate. They’ll say, ‘Chris we’ve already solved that problem, and here’s how to do it.

Teleworker’s Innovation Isn’t Implemented

“You would think that remote workers would know more, would be able to innovate more. But it turns out they can come up with creative ideas but they’re never implemented and that’s what innovation is. If you’re at Apple, and you come up with a great idea, but the iPhone doesn’t come off the assembly line, then you’ve failed. So it is serendipitous interactions between people you would normally work with or talk to that makes the difference,” said Sullivan.

You can find all our telework week stories by searching key word: Telework Week.

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Henry Brown

Would be truly interesting to see “They have plenty of data that shows you can increase collaboration, innovation, speed of decision making if everyone comes to the same place

Other “points” that IMO are slightly off target:

  • Would offer that the typical teleworker has very little to do with innovation
  • Most teleworkers do NOT telework 5 days a week
  • A case could be made that for learning to be useful/effective their needs to be minimum detractions
  • would offer that most workers in the office environment have very little opportunity to interact with anyone outside of their cubicle, and always at risk of losing their job.

As I understand, in the case of Google and Apple while no teleworking is involved by any employee, would offer that NOT all employees sit in the office in Cupertino or Mountain View. Would offer that Dr. Sullivan would probably agree that that there is innovation coming from Google from the 70 different offices. And who knows how many different offices for Apple.

Having said all this I THINK I understand the reasoning for Yahoo and Best Buy for eliminating the Telework/ROWE program in their organization. And I fully agree that if they did NOT do something dramatic that they probably would be toast in the rather near term future. NOT certain that changing the working conditions and giving managers/supervisors more power is the answer though.

Ruthanna Gordon

I wonder what the result would be if you permitted teleworking–but only from a co-working office. If you’re having serendipitous interactions, but not with people in your own organization, do you still bring in better ideas? Or is constant face-time with your own colleagues necessary to “get the iPhone off the assembly line?”

Gerard R. Wenham

Seriously? A company innovative enough to allow teleworking that doesn’t use video to communicate?

If their only means of communicating while teleworking is your grandfather’s e-mail, then I agree.

But Skype, Google Video Chat, LiveMeeting, Webex and dozens more are available, some for free.

Not a convincing argument….

Kerry Ann O'Connor

Before declaring telework dead or the death knell of a company, it’s working for plenty of other innovative companies:


“Having no central workplace certainly works for Automattic, the company that controls blogging behemoth WordPress. 120 employees work from their homes in 26 countries, and its leader, Matt Mullenweg, sees distributed employees as the future of work.”

And at least this government agency: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-09-10/local/35494462_1_telework-patent-trademark-office

And as far as innovation goes, this simplistic view of telework vis-a-vis innovation doesn’t take into account new modes of organizing people for work, especially for the technology sector.

See Top Coder, for example: http://www.managementexchange.com/story/open-source-meets-capitalism-collaborate-competing

Or Tongal: http://www.managementexchange.com/story/tongal-21st-century-business-model-finding-top-talent-and-putting-them-work-something-they-lov

Kevin Lanahan

I think a lot depends on the nature of the work and the nature of the workforce. I think it is easier to innovate when everyone is physically present, as there is an emotional component involved. People get excited by new ideas.

When it comes time to put pixels to screens, though, sometimes that can be done remotely or in smaller workgroups. I think that younger workers are more at ease with this, while old fogies like me prefer going to work.