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Opinion: Why you shouldn’t forgo the office

Daniel Saunders

Chief Executive

When social distancing measures were first employed to curb the spread of COVID-19, our working lives (along with many other areas of our lives) underwent an abrupt change. Large swathes of the global population were told to stay at home and once-bustling office blocks were now empty and devoid of sound.

While we were expecting the measures to be relaxed, Boris Johnson advised Britons last week to “work from home for the next 6 months”. The question that I’m now asking is: what impact will remote working have on innovation?

While the power of individualism may be strengthened by working from home, we shouldn’t underplay the power of togetherness–collaborative in-person situations that spark novel ideas, solutions, and breakthroughs.

Yet, many businesses are questioning the necessity of having offices at all. After all, the past 6 months’ have proven that most people can still be productive remotely. Even the most old-school execs are now onboard; a quarter of managers said that before lockdown they were sceptical that staff could work effectively from home, but are now convinced. They joined the 49% of managers who were already convinced of the benefits of remote working.

This taste of flexibility and control over our work environment means that 75% of UK employees don’t want to return to the office full-time. It’s hard to envisage how businesses could reinstate mandatory full-time office work after this experience, especially if they value their employees’ wants and needs.

And as a result, I’ve heard many discussions about whether companies should opt for working from home versus working from an office. But it’s the wrong debate. It shouldn’t be an either-or situation. Both environments are needed, with office-based work being a vital component for innovation.

Here’s how you get the most out of both environments and ensure you don’t jeopardize your team’s ability to innovate in the process.

The right type of environment for the right type of work

If you aren’t au fait with the history of office design you might be surprised to learn that the open-plan office predates the cubical, which was later seen as a solution to the distracting open-plan setups. But, we fell back into the clutches of the open-plan office, rebelling against the drudgery of tiny grey cubicles that were often mocked in 90’s pop culture.

Anyone who has tried to focus in an open-plan office will testify – it’s an uphill struggle. So allowing staff to work remotely in much more productive environments for deep focused work (when they don’t have children to school at the same time), makes sense.

But, can we work collaboratively in remote setups?

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that people who were successful innovators built a foundation of trust with their colleagues using “micro-interactions” throughout the working day. Those “watercooler moments”. So, developing good communication is a key component when it comes to innovation.

But the Allen Curve throws a spanner in the works for remote environments being good for collaboration. It states that there’s an exponential drop in the frequency of communication as the distance between individuals increases. Another large scale study of a major technology company found that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than co-located team members did.

Could it be that the right impetus, processes, and tools weren’t in place to facilitate better communication, trust, and collaboration in these remote environments? Tools like Teams, Zoom, Slack, and Miro are doing their best to create a semblance of the in-person work experience, virtually. And perhaps there’s the opportunity to simulate spontaneity too. For example, global media agency Wavemaker has been encouraging everyone in their company to call five people a week, people who they’d usually bump into at the office. The calls have no agenda or calendar invite and it’s hoped these artificial ‘random’ moments could spark new ideas among the team.

Yet, Allen postulates in his 2006 addendum that his original findings still hold true despite advances in technology. He found rather than the probability of remote communication increasing with distance, as face-to-face probability decays, there is in fact a decay in the use of all communication media with distance (following a “near-field” rise).

These findings show there is no substitute for in-person collaboration to foster trust and collaborative working. Therefore our focus should be on improving our in-person working environments to better support collaboration.

Changing the function of office space

We know that face-to-face collaborative working with colleagues is crucial but open-plan offices don’t do a great job of facilitating this. One study found that firms who switched to open-plan offices saw face-to-face interactions fall by 70%.

With smaller daily numbers of staff who need to be ‘on-site’ at any given time, we have the opportunity to rethink ‘the office’ to better support collaborative working.

It’s likely that we’ll see many companies downsizing their current office footprint, like Pinterest who recently paid $89.5 million to get out of a nearly-half-million-square-foot lease in San Francisco.

Alongside smaller spaces, office setups should focus primarily on collaborative working. From moveable, soundproof booths and cafe-style seating, to banks of lockers where workers can store their equipment. Other options include more decentralised micro offices nearer to where employees live or rural coworking with travel budgets so you can visit your team.

We should be wary of rushing into a refurb though, to avoid repeating the same open-plan office mistakes. For example, Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour found that when employees switched from having a dedicated desk to free seating there was a decrease in socialization and trust. Not great for a collaborative environment. Joan Burke, Chief People Officer at DocuSign seems to have a way to overcome this issue, however, with what she calls “neighbourhoods.” Each neighbourhood is owned by a whole team and has a range of different types of spaces, to help appease our territorial nature.

While the need to reinstate in-person environments is a given, more research needs to be done to figure out what type of office layout will be most beneficial for our time together.

Increased diversity means increased innovation

The reduced need to be in the office permanently means businesses have the opportunity to increase the diversity of their teams, which in turn can increase the level of innovation created when teams are together.

A nationally representative survey looked at the impact of diversity on innovation. It considered two types of diversity; inherent (traits you are born with) and acquired (traits you gain from experience, such as an appreciation of cultural differences). The research found leaders with 3  diversity traits from both inherent and acquired types, out-innovate, and out-perform others.

The research continued;

“Without diverse leadership, women are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas; people of colour are 24% less likely, and LGBTs are 21% less likely.”

Meaning that a lack of diversity in leadership and within teams leads to fewer market opportunities because the people who understand and champion ideas related to under-leveraged markets aren’t there to be heard, or aren’t supported. But now, people with different needs and work schedules can take advantage of a hybrid office-and-home-based role.

The UK also has one of the most regionally disparate GNP per resident of any advanced country. Highly educated people tend to move to the southeast where there are higher paid opportunities leaving a dearth of talent in more rural regions.

But now the best talent can be recruited from a much wider geographical area; people don’t need to move to big cities to find well-paid jobs. This, in turn, can have a big impact on levelling up the economy for these areas of the UK as well as other interesting societal ramifications if big cities no longer hold quite the same level of power and influence.  Having higher levels of talent regionally also means that regional in-person teams can benefit when it comes to their collaborative working time together.

It’s a good news story for many underrepresented demographics, but it does present new challenges for other groups. How will we upskill new team members, especially those at entry-level? Can those moments where you would shadow a peer to learn on the job be replaced remotely? Until a solution is found for these kinds of problems, the in-person office remains an integral part of managing and onboarding new recruits.

 

Conclusion

For businesses that are able to ride the wave of this pandemic, there will be plenty of opportunities to enhance and improve your working environments and practices. Figuring out how to get more from our in-person time, by rethinking office design, to gaining a more diverse workforce.

As Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder put it “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?” We must combine the best of the individualism that is bolstered when we’re working from home, for example, our increased individual productivity, with all the benefits of in-person collaboration. That way, we can ensure we won’t lose our creative spark.

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