Google and Yahoo office strategies teach us the value of the velvet glove

Velvet gloveIt’s a week now since the whole Yahoo-ha kicked off and since that time everybody has had their say on the matter including – refreshingly – those in the mainstream media. The story has followed its own narrative arc, from the initial gasps of horror at Yahoo’s audacious challenge to a cherished piece of contemporary received wisdom (coupled with the reminder that Yahoo still exists) to something more thoughtful and circumspect as we learned more about the thinking behind the decision.What has become apparent is that Yahoo’s actions were based on a tacit understanding that people work better on certain tasks when they are together.

The decision by Yahoo was rooted in an understanding of how the office plays an essential role in providing the setting for collaboration and the exchange of ideas and information. In fact, regardless of individual motivation, business cultures and technological sophistication, the office is the only way of achieving many things that companies desire. In this regard, Yahoo has the same objectives in terms of its workplace strategy as Google, which is lauded  for its approach to workplace design and management.

On the day the Yahoo memo leaked on the 22nd February, an exclusive feature appeared on the Vanity Fair website with plans for Google’s purpose built new building designed by NBJJ Architects. In the feature, David Radcliffe of Google explained how the company briefed the architects to create  a floor plan that would maximise ‘casual collisions of the work force.’

No employee in the 1.1-million-square-foot complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other, according to Radcliffe. “You can’t schedule innovation,” he said. “We want to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’   

So why isn’t Google’s focus on bringing people into the workplace to work alongside each other met with the same opprobrium reserved for Marissa Mayer of Yahoo? At the most obvious level, Google is handling the issue with a velvet glove around its iron fist, using design to guide people into behaving as they’d like. Yahoo, on the other hand, is applying the blunt instrument of a memo from HR to not only reverse its own  policies on homeworking, but also challenge a contemporary piece of received wisdom now so ingrained that any attempt at gainsaying it is met with genuine dismay.

But maybe there’s even more to it than that. Google is not only more successful than Yahoo -according to this piece in The Economist  its workers each generate $931,657 of revenue compared to just $353,657 at Yahoo – it is also cooler. In fact it is the World’s second most admired company according to Fortune, with only Apple keeping it from top spot. So maybe people are also more prepared to cut Google some slack.

Of course, these things can change very quickly in the world of technology, but maybe two of the major lessons to learn from the backlash Yahoo has endured in the past week are that nobody loves you when you’re down and out and that when it comes to managing people nowadays, a nudge is more effective than a push.