Based on my experience, there is a point to Marissa Meyer’s new policy at Yahoo. Collaboration can indeed happen when people work in a same physical area. When I worked as a product support engineer back in the late 90’s, our team would take calls from field engineers as the second tier of customer support. There was countless times where the team members would overhear a conversation from a person on a call and offer assistance because they had a good idea about what the problem was. If anything, the challenge back then was proving to people that collaboration could happen without everyone in the same space.
In 2001, I was part of a small group of engineers researching concepts and creating standards to improve product serviceability. While looking at best practices, we discovered that a design engineering team in California was using a Microsoft product called NetMeeting on a “skunk works” basis. Quite simply, they did this at no expense and without the knowledge, support, or approval of the IT department. They used a discarded PC as a NetMeeting directory server and stuck it in a back room. These engineers were using NetMeeting as a way of holding group meetings without having members travel between buildings on the campus. What our group discovered was that there was a NetMeeting compatible Sun Solaris software application called “SunForum”. This was big news to us because it meant that a software engineer using a PC in Boston could directly support an application engineer working on a Sun-based machine in our company’s Paris office. Up to that point, the conventional process would be phone conversations and e-mails until the point that the lack of progress forced someone to travel. If you loved travel, you hated the new M2M connectivity and if you hated travel, M2M collaboration was great news.
In 2013, remote control software should not be news to anyone. In fact, there are many software applications and hardware platforms that teams can use to collaborate. At the same time, these same platforms can also destroy collaboration and productivity. For example, an engineer wearing headphones and listening to streaming radio is unlikely to hear a neighbor’s communication and offer assistance. What might work in these cases would be secure on-line chat forums and those could work wherever people were and which devices they were using. In summary, if people want to collaborate, they will find the tools and working styles to do it. If they don’t they will resist. Forcing everyone onto the same company campus won’t change that dynamic by itself.