Can technology build office culture for remote workers?

Presumably the dark arts of reverse psychology means that the ‘do not forward’ subject line on the email was all part of the Mayer masterplan, to stamp her authority on an organisation meandering towards tech irrelevance. Either way, Mayer has earned Yahoo! global press coverage and sparked debate.

But is this move part of a wider lurch back towards traditional office working? And is technology part of the problem or solution for businesses big and small?

Of course flexible working is neither new nor universally embraced. Boris Johnson angered many last year, describing the drive to encourage more employees to work from home during the Olympics as a ‘skivers paradise’. Others like Richard Branson believe that Mayer is making a big mistake, tweeting, “Perplexed by Yahoo! stopping remote working. Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel”.

In the 2012 Management Article of the Year, Professors Worrall and Cooper assert that the very nature of a collaborative, flexible and trusting company culture amplifies employee wellbeing and company growth. The type of organisations that achieves this balance, see far better results than those that inherently mistrust their employees to be productive from home and thereby the type that tend to shy away from flexible working.

Most confusing of all perhaps, is that Mayer’s decision comes at a time when it’s becoming increasingly commonplace for businesses- big and small- to target remote working, both as a way to attract and retain talent, as well as reduce overhead costs. Just last year the Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said that more state employees should work from home in a bid to save the taxpayer up to £15bn a year in office rent.

According to the CMI’s Future Forecast report over 70 per cent of managers want it as a mandatory policy; while the Women’s Leadership Summit view it as one of the major enablers helping both women and men combine work and family responsibilities. But apart from the practical benefits for both employer and employee, the real conundrum is about how you create office culture with geographically diverse teams.

If home working is such a blackhole of creativity; how have so many startups, small businesses, freelancers and homeworkers built successful and innovative businesses without physical office space? Or is it just their size that allows this flexibility? Can you manage a complex organisation from your spare bedroom?

Tom Ball, CEO of flexible working hub NearDesk questions the concept of the modern office and asks, “what is a fixed space? It’s a crass management tool. Is the best way to get the most from people to rent a magnolia box miles from where everyone lives, get them up early every morning to spend hours and pounds everyday getting to it.”

NearDesk is a London-based startup redefining the concept of flexible working but offering accessible office hubs whenever you need them across the city. For all the benefits of home-working, many people still need physical facilities away from distraction but with the convenience of locality and ability for ad hoc and fast-paced in-person interactions.

New working environments like NearDesk are built on technology and interaction, with WiFi and cloud solutions underpinning workspaces with more hot-desking; breakout areas (that will be chat-friendly too and spaces set aside for idea swarming.

But is technology an enabler or has it failed to keep speed? The past decade has of course seen the rapid expansion of mobile devices; we all have access to affordable smartphones, tablets, wifi and connectivity that enable us to remain connected 24/7 and work on the go. Most of us also use Skype to stay in touch with colleagues, friends and family or share files with colleagues using Dropbox or similar solutions. But have these tools given us what we really crave, real-time human relationships and bonds?

If not, perhaps then the upcoming roll out of the 4G network and a greater uptake of cloud computing, may be the solution that enables more of us to work remotely yet still feel a part of the bigger team picture.

Matt Cooper, Vice President- Enterprise & Business Development at oDesk believes it can but it requires excellent management, “AOL has recently given developers permission to hire up to 3 shadows on oDesk. This means with developers in every part of the world, when you’re at home sleeping, someone is moving the ball down field. But remember if you’re a crap manager in person you’ll be worse online and as much as getting the job done is the end goal, you need the right people and tools to be successful.”

oDesk itself now has 120 full time and 350 freelance contractors but Cooper insists that you can see the personal interactions between office-based and remote-working staff, “how do you build a culture online? It’s hard to build a culture with a distributed team but tools like Google hangouts and Skype mean it’s very possible. What is important is that you understand the importance that personal relationships play in business and build this into your ways of working.”

Has Mayers’ decision undone years of management culture progress- the type of culture fuelled in the 1990’s by tech startups like Google and Yahoo! itself? Rewind a decade and being seen and heard around the office seemed the only way to guarantee you got a promotion or pay rise.

Or am I being overly harsh? Are the 9-5ers content with the structure of an office environment and colleagues around to stimulate creativity? Or, are they a bit fed up with battling the rush hour traffic, engaging in chains of email conversations with someone sat 5 feet away, while being called into meetings that do nothing but add to the already exhaustive workload?

My concern for Mayer’s decision is not that others will follow suit, I can’t see that happening, but instead the damage it has caused to the Yahoo! brand. The decision for me is rather fundamentally at odds with a decades old public perception of Yahoo! as a forward thinking, innovative and dynamic company.

If this had been a KMPG or JP Morgan recalling it’s homeworkers, no one would have give two hoots; but this isn’t, it’s a former startup darling which helped redefine the way a generation saw working life and spurned the Generation Y mentality. If they couldn’t make the technology work for them, then who can?

Readers of this piece may be interested in a blog by Richard Alvin, the Group MD of Business Matters’ owners Capital Business Media talking about the technology & flexible working patterns we employ here at Business Matters and across the Capital Business Media Group