Concerns about hybrid working damaging collaborative and collegial cultures are based on flimsy logic. Cultures vary widely across different firms and are heavily influenced by leadership behaviours and practices. In a recent report, the ONS found that good management practices made it easier for firms to adapt to novel practices like mass home working during the pandemic.
Loaded warnings from certain industry leaders that working remotely will impede innovation are founded on the assumption that creative ideas only happen serendipitously. Perhaps what is worrying leaders more than how to plan such exchanges of novel information is the downgrading of the office as a visible statement of prestige and power.
In his 2020 annual letter to shareholders, Jamie Dimon, CEO of investment bank J.P. Morgan outlined his concerns. He claimed remote work “virtually eliminates spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine.”
Cultures that are collaborative and collegial at their core may not be the most powerful, but they don’t break down in the face of disruption - they adapt. They also depend less on where work takes place and more on how the work happens.
Rumours of water cooler ‘magic’ are greatly exaggerated
When the pandemic arrived, many professionals adapted well. Enforced remote working enabled many to reclaim some personal time, and with family, that they would probably have otherwise spent commuting or being present in an office. Now, many are reluctant to trade in the actual messy, delightful, difficult and treasured core of how most of us live, to go back to the office full time.
This is not simply about avoiding the commute or wanting to spend more time with family. Professor Laura Empson of Bayes Business School says this reflects the increasing “impoverishment of office-based lives” and that pre-pandemic, most professionals, under pressure to maximise billable hours, did not “spend happy days in the office enjoying ad hoc bonding sessions with colleagues around the water cooler.”
Hybrid ushers in a reconfiguration of work
The new world of work calls for leaders not to ‘react’ to the initial discomfort of disruptions to the status quo with a return to office presenteeism. However hybrid working is viewed, it represents a once in a lifetime reconfiguration of work, and an opportunity to experiment how best to manage it by involving a broad range of stakeholders.
The only real reason ‘9-5’ actually exists is because of the office. But work itself is not a place or physical space. Work is different activities involving different people that can be delivered effectively in different ways and in different places while reconciling the demands of clients, colleagues and private lives. Microsoft’s chief people officer, Kathleen Hogan, said at a recent work summit, “I definitely would be thoughtful about if you can’t enable hybrid, having a really good reason why it’s really important for people to be in the office 9-5.”
As people, we’re hardwired to seek social companionship. As professionals, we are driven to build social capital. We need our workplace to cater for this inherent human need for social relationships - both quantity and quality - because we spend around a third of our lifetime working. Our interpersonal relationships have a very meaningful effect on the quality of our mental as well as our physical health. Extended periods of social isolation, such as many experienced during the pandemic, can have detrimental psychological effects on otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals.
Making a success of hybrid work requires organisations to equip their people to work effectively across locations to suit the work they are doing, while enabling them to come together intentionally in a work space to collaborate and socialise.
The strength of weak ties
New ideas tend to surface most often when you mingle with people who are not your strong ties. Strong ties are the people you most regularly interact with or sit with when you’re in the office. Your weak ties are people you don’t habitually interact with or sit anywhere near. They could be people you recognise but don’t know, or people you don’t often see in the office because they sit on another floor.
The value of weak ties is the information and ideas passing between them because these will usually be completely unpredictable. To paraphrase Thomas Schelling, the American economist, in his essay "The Role of War Games and Exercises," you can’t think of something that doesn't occur to you, no matter how smart you are! Information circulating between strong ties on the other hand, is often a foregone conclusion and becomes redundant fairly quickly.
Chance encounters may be less useful than leaders would have us believe
The most meaningful weak ties are not necessarily the ones you bump into at the water cooler during a quick dash from your desk. Nor are they necessarily the ones you encounter in a brainstorm when you’re supposed to be innovating. Brainstorm meetings tend to involve too many participants which means great ideas don’t always surface if people don’t speak up or can’t get a word in edgeways.
So whilst it’s key to ‘collide’ with different people, chance encounters may be less useful than we think because we’re almost always too busy for them.
We’re often under pressure when dashing from one meeting to the next. Being busy somehow gives meaning to work life because we often can’t articulate what we’re actually so busy doing. A culture of ‘busyness’ tends to leave us no time to meander down to the water cooler, let alone stop and chat there. Instead, when we bump into someone in passing we’ll plan to ‘grab a coffee’ at some point in the future, but it often never happens.
However, we do make time for certain activities that only tend to be meaningful when we’re in an office or office space environment. For example, the ‘joy’ of transporting yourself to the same spots for a lunch break (if you’re not too busy of course) where you tend to run into familiar faces but you don’t know who they are.
You tend to be able to predict who you are likely to see there and unique relationships are cultivated. Unique because they are completely distinct from the rapport you share with your team. They require nothing from you; a pleasant encounter without demands or someone to whom you might ‘offload.’ These weak ties are valued because they bring light relief as well as different perspectives. But they are not encounters that happen completely by chance.
Make the sources of the most useful information independent of each other
Co-location makes meetings and brainstorms easier to arrange, but doesn’t mean they are always effective. We tend to schedule too many of them without a thought for the cost of people’s time. And because we then become busy with lots of pointless meetings, we don’t adequately prepare for the important ones
Poor meeting discipline means we often don’t get value from brainstorms that are meant to foster diversity and conflict amongst weak ties. Instead of enabling ideas to flow, poorly organised meetings stultify that flow when there is no clear agenda and too many people are involved.
Adam Grant, the organisational psychologist, posits in a recent podcast with Eric Schmidt that brainstorms tend to thwart creativity when there are too many participants. This leads to a production blocking problem because people can’t all talk at once so some ideas are lost. There’s also the ego threat issue where people don’t want to appear silly so they keep quiet, dumbing down on what might be their most original ideas. In large organisations in particular, no one wants to be wrong and so we often run into conformity or convergence around popular ideas. Or, we come up against ‘the hippo effect’ says Grant, where everyone tends to line up behind the idea of the highest paid person in the room.
Gatherings without intentional structure and advance planning will not produce sufficient divergent thinking. Grant claims that people have more brilliant ideas on their own than they do in groups. But they also have more ‘stupid’ ideas.
To get the best out of creative encounters with weak ties you need to get people to generate ideas independently beforehand, where they will not be influenced by others, to get as much variation as possible. You then identify a group to moderate your brainstorm to evaluate and refine those ideas. Landing on an optimal approach does not happen by simply colliding bright minds together and waiting for the magic to happen.
To derive the most useful information from multiple sources, it is best to make these sources independent of each other. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls this the principle of independent judgements. This principle posits that bringing people together at random can turn unbiased sources into biased ones and potentially crowd out useful information.
This has significant implications for the effective conduct of brainstorms or meetings. Before an issue is discussed as a group, Kahneman suggests that all participants should be asked to share their views on a topic in advance. This procedure means that the diversity of thought in the group will be put to good use and the best ideas can then be progressed. In contrast, open discussion gives too much weight to those who speak early or assertively causing others to line up behind them.
Collaboration is most valuable when it does not happen completely by chance
We can’t leave the best ideas to chance. Until we value what we’re working on more than where we do it or how long we spend on it, we will remain too busy working on too many indiscriminate initiatives. The most valuable asset of any organisation is its people, and yet we tend to manage our interactions haphazardly instead of focusing on what will make a difference. Intentional collaboration need not be prescriptive but it does help us interact with the ‘right’ people on the ‘right’ things and get work done.