Several years ago, I attended an alumni class that discussed James Surowiecki’s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds.” The essence of this book is that a crowd, or group of people, can make wise decisions that no individual can make. Early in the book it describes a contest at a fair to guess the weight of a steer. No one got it exactly, but the average guess was withing 10lbs of the actual weight. Surowieki went on to describe the decision making benefits of groups.
Recently, an understanding of this effect found Marissa Mayer, the dynamic new CEO at Yahoo, to end that company’s policy of allowing, if not encouraging, a practice known as telecommuting. This practice allows employees to stay at home and connect with the company and co-workers by logging onto the company’s computers. This practice was seen as very advanced as it allowed people to take care of children, avoid time wasted in commuting, and, it was thought, to be productive at all times. What was missing, as Mayer has discovered, is the dynamic nature of grouping workers in the office.
Among the benefits cited was that workers who saw each other trusted each other more, that non-telecommuting workers were jealous of telecommuters (thus promoting divisiveness), and informally exchanged ideas in the break room or the hall way. At Xerox, it was found that repairmen solved problems while exchanging stories drinking morning coffee together.
Yahoo is a company that lives on new ideas. As Surowiecki shows and Mayer now hopes, the generation of these ideas does not occur with employees sitting at home, or some Caribou Coffee shop, while telecommuting and being digitally connected with co-workers. The Yahoo work place will again be a crowded laboratory of thought with employees chatting with each other, discussing problems face to face, asking others for solutions to real time problems, and probably generating the very ideas that is Yahoo’s tour d’force. That work place had been empty on Fridays. Furthermore, the cohesiveness of the work force will be re-established after being disolved under the concept of telecommuting. In fact, as Xerox found out, workers are more productive when their break times were all at the same time.
In “The Wisdom of Crowds,” Surowiecki points out that trust and cooperation are critical to business success. By eliminating telecommuting, Marissa Mayer is promoting that idea that was promoted in “Wealth Nations” and practiced by J.P. Morgan by enhancing those factors within its workforce and by extension, its customers. This is a very wise CEO that will move this company forward by enhancing the efficiency of its work force.