Back on the Ranch at Yahoo

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One needn’t look far this week to hear the cries of anguish, and claims that Yahoo boss, Marissa Mayer is taking the company and its workers back to the stone age with her decision that, in the near future, Yahoo staffers need to get back to work, literally.

Not so fast. Granted, telecommuting has its advantages, lots of them, both of the cost and lifestyle variety. Indeed, each of us maintains a principal office at our residence. We tend to be early adopters of the types of technology that make this workstyle more seamless and effective. Yet, there are times when proximity is more important than convenience.

This week is one of those times for us. We went to considerable trouble and expense to get in the same airspace (Marriott’s Gateway Atlanta hotel if you must ask), to talk about marketing and new books. Not unlike some of the logic that likely backed up Ms. Mayer’s decision, our decision was influenced by the fact that telephonic (or other electronic) communication only takes you so far.

Communicating is about more than emoting. It’s about making meaning. Getting belly to belly affords much greater clarity. You get a better sense not only of what was said, but what wasn’t. It’s more personal. You can see the other person limp from a recent spill at the gym, and empathize with them. You can smell fear in their breath, or see their body language suggesting hesitance, but only if you get close enough to them. These are things that you’ll never get on a Skype or FaceTime session. You never get to shake their hand or give them a pat. I will submit that claiming that electronic communication leaves nothing out is akin to saying that phone sex is as good as the real thing. Chew on that for a minute.

As a leader, dealing with people exclusively (or primarily) on an electronic basis has a lot of shortcomings. One of them is that you have fewer ways to really get to know them and size each other up. That inhibits the trust building process by a huge factor. Just as people can use the technological curtain to mask themselves socially, the same thing happens in the workspace. You never get all the pieces of the puzzle when dealing with someone on a purely electronic basis. Just ask Manti Te’O if he might have been better off having at least one real date.

If working remotely is effective for you, or your organization, we’re all for it. It does for us, too. But let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes you simply need to put everyone in the same airspace for awhile.

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