It’s not remotely working
There has been so much to divide us in recent years it’s hard to know where to start. Brexit, lock-down, vaccinations, party-gate, beer-gate, ‘who gives a monkey’s-gate’ and now, working from home. Blimey, does this last one cause its very own stinky scene.
For the purposes of this Newsfeed, let’s concentrate on how it impacts innovation. Since our office spaces started to empty in 2020, much research has been done on how we humans cope without daily three-dimensional colleague interaction and what gives. There’s some interesting behavioural science work being done on understanding the implications of our transition towards a hybrid home/office routine. Because, let’s face it, it’s here to stay. Stop groaning, it’s called progress.
Let’s just say from the get-go, that if your schtick is ‘counting beans’ you can probably crack-on from home but if you aspire to develop a new way to count those beans probably best to haul your backside out of the sun lounger, park your over-priced designer pooch (that you bought during lockdown because it cheered you up) with a friend, and pay for a train back to the office. Here’s how its breaking down – the theories, not our economy…
Two-dimensional avatar directors
Probably ok if you’ve seen them in the flesh before our world tipped upside down but what if you’re new or looking for direction? The director you report to can become an abstract caricature. Think ORAC in Blakes 7. As one commentator, Derek Thompson, astutely points out:
Working from home “…has been successful for veteran employees in defined roles with trusted colleagues, [but] for certain people and for certain objectives, remote or hybrid work remains a problem to be solved.”
Spare a thought for the young inexperienced worker who joins a company only to realise it’s virtual and not much of a company at all. For some, it must seem like they’ve joined a group chat that pays a wage. A fair few will be happy with that until they can’t break through to the next salary band because they haven’t been usefully or properly developed. Strange stuff it is when you view your homeworking policy from the outside in. Young staff want the gossip, the physicality of belonging to and learning how to be a part of a real working environment rather than a soft-copy handbook ‘pinged’ out remotely from HR that refers to a culture they can’t see, smell or touch. Such neglect, the theory goes, will rob businesses of the next generation of innovators and market disrupters.
Not the IT platform we’ve all come to know but real ones. Perhaps even new ones with specific tasks to perform. Much research has been done here and it’s not good news for homeworker or hybrid fans. Microsoft commissioned UC Berkeley to study how the pandemic altered work culture. They sifted through 60,000 employee’s anonymised messages and chats. The results were alarming.
- The number of messages grew as workers tried to keep up with colleagues.
- Proper and valuable information sharing dropped like a stone.
- Remote workers were prone to becoming reclusive – engaging only where they felt they had to.
- Emailing and producing Power Point Presentations(things easily measured) increased.
- Banter and real ‘soft’ connection plummeted undermining trust and innovation.
So, the tools and tricks for looking busy and productive were overused at the expense of team building from the ground up. Hmmm… should we be surprised?
It’s not just UC Berkely that came to these conclusions, a similar study at UCLA found the same to be true.
The sociologist and economist Jane Jacobs developed a theory in 1961 positing that cities promote innovation as people from disparate walks of life collide with one another and cross-pollinate ideas. UCLA concluded that old theory stands well against the test of time and is correct. They found that firms with the most face-to-face interactions also filed the most patents.
Columbia Business School had a good look at this old office chestnut. 1,500 engineers were recruited to work in pairs and randomly assigned to work either face-to-face or over videoconference. The results were straightforward enough. Those who worked virtually, generated fewer total ideas and were significantly less creative.
There is mounting evidence we have an existential problem with homeworking and that is particularly acute if you’re in the innovation game. That doesn’t mean it should be scrapped or that it can’t be fixed. It needs thinking through, not lobbed out to the baying workforce on request with no structure, measurables or co-ordination.
There is one exemplar group that’s cracked remote working. Scientists. They are well-used to remote and effective collaboration. Why? Because they’ve developed know-how and data sharing over many years to make it work for them. They are a truly global, effective, efficient research community. The rest of the workforce is playing with a new toy and making childlike errors, childlike demands, and childlike defences when it obviously doesn’t work.
Arise the new HL manager. For, it is suggested, the key to delivering a solution is to focus on synchronisation. A synchronised office environment has the mentor or team in the office at the right time. And all at the same time, not that hopeless blend of lap-top and face-to-face. That way, office time together is coordinated and deliberately fashioned around business need – not personal convenience. Current remote working may have its problems but hunting down the solution is well worth the effort.
The sweet irony is, you might have to go back into the office, dust off the whiteboard and felt pens, to discuss it together in person and find it!
Just as you were having such fun in the garden smelling the roses…
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Research by Ben Fairclough