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It came as quite a shock to many to hear of Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to call back its thousands of remote workers to the slave yards (albeit very nice slave yards, no doubt) for the 9-to-5 grind.

Many at first glance (myself included) thought it sounded a death knell for the modern, flexible workplace: if industry trendsetters like Yahoo! aren’t into it, my employer just got grounds to haul my ass back into the fluorescent lighted, open-plan, modern factory for over 40 hours of my working week.

The giddy enlightenment that many modern employers were beginning to realise – that the happiness, and longevity of their employees at their companies is inextricably linked to their work-life balance, ability to see their families, and prioritise other important things like their health, (not to mention the key element of inherent trust it implies between colleagues) – seemed smacked in the face by such a decision.

And when Google piped-up to back Mayer’s call, it really felt like a backflip into old-school, big business rules, where dollars rule people, and your people come second.

But, while it might seem a shame these industry giants are opening these familiar doors once again, the reason could well be valid.

Huge, bloated, and with unhealthy vital signs, Yahoo! is like an overweight person at risk of a business cardiac – it needs to trim the fat, stat.

And the cause of the disease appears be one that is ages old, and that is a diagnosis of ‘social loafing’.

Social loafing was a term crowned by social psychologist Max Ringelmann in 1913 when he noticed that a group working together collectively produced less. The reason for this was not only poor coordination, but crucially a lack of motivation.

Later tests further showed that people will ‘social loaf’ if the goal is meaningless to them, and if individual input is not identifiable as part of the whole.

(Those of you who are measured by both group and individual performance in your workplace may now see why).

Other interesting outcomes showed;

– The magnitude of social loafing is reduced for women and for individuals originating from Eastern cultures.
– Individuals are more likely to loaf when their co-workers are expected to perform well.
– Individuals reduce social loafing when working with acquaintances and do not loaf at all when they work in highly valued groups.

So if all the above is true, how we end up on this road to remote working?

The theory goes that when we find work difficult, others presence is distracting, making work harder still (hello open plan offices!). But where our work is easy and fairly boring, having others present acts as a drive, forcing ourselves to compete (even if working independently). When two people work on the same goal this is even more pronounced: most animals will eat, run, and even procreate at an accelerated rate of productivity in the presence of other. Insert gym buddy here.

Perhaps initially the work at Yahoo! was challenging enough to allow workers this much space to roam. And then things got too easy…

Hopefully for Mayer, the effects of drive theory from the company’s new workspace will kick in soon.

Hopefully for us, the flow-on effects of this flexi recall don’t tip the delicate gains in flexible working for us mere mortals not located in Silicon Valley.

Drive and motivation for many people can also reside in the hope that we won’t have to spend ever day of the average 13000 working days in our lives chained to a desk.

Sickie, anyone?

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