One of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic has been that many people have had the opportunity to experiment with and experience remote working. Only a few years ago it would have been unimaginable for companies to let so many of their staff work remotely.
But now that the pandemic is coming under control and companies can return their workforce to the office, there is a new tension as managers want teams to return, while creative workers want to maintain remote working practices.
According to the recent Slack Future Forum Pulse Survey, executives are three times more likely to want to return to the office than non-executives. Almost 80% of knowledge workers want to maintain at least some of the remote working flexibility that they have gained during the pandemic.
Why the gap? Well, it seems that managers still believe that teams need to be physically together to have the melting pot experience that promotes creativity, collaborative culture, and innovation. However, a recent study by Northeastern University shows that there is no tangible difference in performance between face-to-face and remote teams.
That said, data gathered by some employee engagement platforms suggest that workers are communicating with fewer people outside their direct teams. The size of networks tends to be a direct reflection of levels of innovation. But if networks are reducing for both face-to-face and remote workers, what’s going on?
If it is not remote working that is killing creativity within companies, what is?
One of the biggest problems that many workforces have faced over recent decades is simply giving too much work to individuals. There is pressure to deliver above the odds and outperform colleagues, which means that workers are so busy that they just don’t have time to think creatively or make new contacts.
This situation has been exacerbated during the pandemic by the “great resignation”. The upheaval caused by COVID has led many to see that they might be better off elsewhere, and they are leaving their jobs. As the employment market is tight, their tasks are then distributed among other workers until a replacement is found. Of course, once a task has become part of your portfolio, it can be very difficult to remove.
The fact is, to be creative and innovative you need time to research, think, imagine, and share ideas with colleagues. That can feel impossible to do when you are swamped by emails and stuck in meetings or online calls back-to-back for several hours.
Companies need to draw clearer lines between mission-important tasks and nice-to-haves to give workers more time and space. They then need to expand capacity. If it is difficult to find talent in the area, companies should consider hiring remote workers.
As workers go remote, many companies fear that they will lose productivity since they can’t really be sure that workers are on task when they should be. To address this concern, many companies have extremely frequent video calls and burdensome online checking-in requirements to keep an eye on workers.
These activities eat time, which is already at a premium, and tend to dishearten workers – no one gets inspired sitting in pointless meetings.
These strategies are also unnecessary for companies concerned about creativity, as feedback suggests that remote working boosts creativity.
Losing the commute frees up time and removes a major stressor that can compromise performance.
Less interaction with colleagues means that workers tend to be more thoughtful when they communicate, resulting in better communication.
Finally, control of their work environment means that workers are better able to plan their activities for when and where they are most alert and creative.
Businesses need to move from monitoring “when” people are working to measuring impact and deliverables. In this way, they can enhance the benefits of remote working and enjoy the rewards of a happier and more innovative workforce.
As well as sending workers home, the pandemic has seen daycare centres closed and students doing the classes at home online. This has made childcare a major issue in many households. As workers are “at home”, in many cases it has been assumed that they can supervise their children while getting on with their daily work. But if this is true, why doesn’t everyone bring their two-year-old to the office?
Expecting workers, usually female workers, to manage childcare while putting in a full day “at the office” is a recipe for reduced productivity and creativity.
Companies can help workers focus by providing childcare support. This could be financial support, flexible working hours to allow parents to more reasonably share childcare, or, more likely, a combination of the two.
Loss of Trust
Many advocates of face-to-face working environments point out that they are essential for creating cohesive teams that can collaborate well. There certainly seems to be some truth to this, with 10% of Americans meeting their significant other in the office.
But a positive social work environment is not all about being physically close. There are many tales of face-to-face companies with toxic working cultures. A cohesive work environment is all about creating a trusting culture, whether that be online or in the office.
Creating these environments generally requires a balance of rules and liberty. There should be clear rules in place for communication, responsibilities, reporting, and appropriate behavior towards colleagues. But there should also be space for colleagues to speak frankly (and respectfully) as friends, as well as for pointless social interaction and fun.
Enterprises should focus on promoting cohesive working environments that encourage trust but also personal intimacy, regardless of whether teams are face-to-face, remote, or a combination of the two.
Lack of Serendipity
It is generally accepted that the best ideas occur when people from different teams, with different ideas and experiences, come together. This is probably the key benefit of a face-to-face work environment.
But in both face-to-face and remote working situations, businesses often try to force this serendipity by putting people in a room (or on a video conference call) and charging them with being innovative. But the reality is that’s just not how it works.
Many people don’t understand the Oxbridge education system where students study in dedicated departments but live in interdisciplinary colleges and attend regular events (mostly black-tie dinners) with colleagues from all the various subjects taught by the university. Dons sit next to first-years and visiting scholars sit with lifers. It is the conversations that happen over dinner, and more than a few drinks, that often stimulate the most innovative cross-disciplinary ideas within these institutions.
Companies need to focus on creating these kinds of environments, for both face-to-face workers and remote workers, rather than scheduling innovation meetings and organizing creativity away days.
Google has probably done the most to crack this code with their 20%-time policy. This policy simply allows Google workers to assign 20% of their time to work on their own side projects and ideas. The only constraint on this activity is that they should be working on something that they think will benefit the company.
Not only does this give people time, but it also gives them the mandate to share their ideas. This can help people reach out to colleagues outside of their main circle and expand their network.
This is just one possible strategy for enhancing serendipity and creativity, and any strategy is only successful when done well. Google insiders suggest that while 20%-time worked well in the beginning, it has since become all but non-existent as most workers simply don’t have time to dedicate 20% (see our first problem). For many, it has become 120%-time.
Businesses embracing remote workers need to come up with creative strategies that allow and encourage interdisciplinary working and serendipitous contact among workers.
Remote Work Looks Like Office Work
Too often remote work arrangements look like cookie-cutter copies of office work relationships, except that one worker has their office in their kitchen, and another in their spare room.
This means that, aside from the commute, the experience for workers isn’t greatly different from being in a face-to-face office except that their meetings are now video calls and quick queries now come in over messenger.
This approach means that both workers and businesses miss out on the key benefits of more flexible working.
Some people say that they are reluctant to work with digital nomads as they are worried that they will be too busy travelling to give their full attention to their projects. But anyone who has worked with a digital nomad realizes that this is not the case. While digital nomads need increased flexibility for their contact hours, the things that they do outside of the office tend to make them more creative and productive.
While there are times when you need a laser focus on just one thing, if you do this for too long you can end up with tunnel vision. This often results in loss of creativity and burnout. New ideas come from encountering the unexpected and mixing new inspiration with what you already know to create something entirely different.
Similarly, burnout often happens when workers are unable to switch off and not think about work when they are officially off the clock. This means that when they come back to things the next day, they are barely refreshed and rejuvenated.
But the lifestyle of a digital nomad encourages you to completely shift your mindset while you are offline because you are in a very different environment, and maybe even speaking a different language.
While the digital nomad lifestyle isn’t for everyone, we can certainly apply some of the principles of that lifestyle to enhance the work-life balance and performance of remote workers.
Enterprises should encourage remote workers to embrace some of the benefits of the digital nomad lifestyle, whether that be flexible working hours, travelling more often, or throwing themselves into other interests while off the clock.
The Future of Work
Digitization, robotization, and automation are not the only influences changing the modern workforce.
People are becoming wealthier and more educated. Today almost 40% of Americans participate in higher education, compared to 7.7% in 1970. This is raising aspirations. Most people are no longer happy to spend 12 hours a day working in a factory job that they hate to support their families.
Increasingly people prioritize work-life balance and work that they find rewarding and fulfilling over financial remuneration.
The rise of remote working and digital working is part of this trend, and it is only going to get stronger. So, while today companies may be able to force workers to return to the office, it is only a matter of time before remote or flexible working is a requirement for finding the talent that businesses need.
It is time to start preparing for the future.