Congress could learn some lessons from Silicon Valley. Extreme partisan gridlock over the federal budget is inching the country closer to drastic spending cuts, known ominously as “the sequester.” Yet, members of Congress used to be far more agreeable back when they weren’t occupied with four-day weekends raising cash in their districts and, instead, could spend time face-to-face with the colleagues at bi-partisan family BBQs.
The extraordinary benefits of face-to-face communication convinced Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer that the company needed to eliminate telecommuting to repair her own beleaguered organization. Congress should follow Mayer’s advice and spend more personal time with their colleagues.
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” declared a leaked internal Yahoo memo. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
The science of distance-based communication corroborates Mayer’s instincts. During experimental trust games, business consultant and University of California Professor Judy Olson found that face-to-face communication far outperformed calls, video conferences and chats. Our finely tuned ability to read people unconsciously places a premium on facial expressions and intonation. A disembodied voice can’t inspire trust.
President Bill Clinton once recommended that Congress ditch the new practice of weekend fundraisers to get back to its more cooperative roots. Back when Republicans and Democrats used to attend family picnics with one another, he recalls, “They got to rest, they got to see their friends, they got to meet with members of the Senate and both parties and talk through issues.”
In a more endearing example, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told a crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival that she used to break partisan gridlock in the Arizona state legislature by inviting people over for dinners. “We used to have pot-luck dinners at my house and I’d fix ’em chalupas and we’d get some beer,” she reminisced, “it would be a good chance to get acquainted and make friends. And, believe me, I could get enough votes on most of the legislation that we had to pass.”
But, the spike in fundraising pressure soon overwhelmed the (relatively) collegial D.C. culture, dramatically reducing the number of voting days and committee meetings. The result has been an inability to pass Congress’s most important bill — federal budget — perpetually leading the nation to the edge of crisis, and potentially causing serious cuts in defense and social programs.
Unlike a tech company, Congress gets rehired regardless of its past performance. So while it doesn’t have to adopt the practices of high-performing companies, perhaps it should anyways.