‘You Have to Change Your Environment’; in Remote World, Offices Must Still Adapt

“From the start of our survey, they’ve said they want to work from home two to two-and-a-half days a week. Now employers have edged up to meet what employees want.” Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom’s words resonate as remote work productivity continues to ascend. But one publisher still believes that hybrid will require an office-space rethinking.

“We learned over the course of a few weeks in March and April last year that we really could do online a lot of that which we used to think we had to come to the office or go to a customer to do. There are many jobs where physical presence is required, of course. But where it isn’t, I can’t see any reason we’ll be returning to a traditional office.”

That quote comes from Thomas Malone, a former research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center and the founding director at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, in a Q&A last week in The Washington Post.

Here are more thoughts on the remote work popularity and production vs. the value of in-person interaction and water-cooler moments.

Productivity has gone up with remote. Bloom had been studying working-from-home arrangements for years and believes a hybrid workforce is the clear answer. “It’s amazing. Probably the biggest surprise of the pandemic was that working from home worked so well,” he told the Post. “We didn’t find a 13% productivity increase [like another prominent study did], but we’re finding an average of 4% or so. Something like 60% of respondents say working from home has worked out ‘better than I expected.’ Firms are astounded.”

Some type of hybrid is the answer. “I just don’t think you need five days a week,” Bloom said. “In a hybrid plan, the team comes in three days… On those three days we have all our meetings, trainings, events, lunches—the hyper-social things. Then the other two days we work from home. So we end up spending as much face time together as we ever did. We just crush it into three days. We reallocate the quiet time we used to have at work to the two days we are at home. It’s honestly better time management.”

Do office set-ups need to change? Even the three days might be questioned now. It might take some new design ideas to get staff to make the make the trek in. There was a story a few weeks ago from Fox Detroit featuring Crain Communications CEO KC Crain talking about the challenge of getting people back into the office. “You have to change your environment,” he said. “The idea that you are going to bring people back and have them sit in a cube right now is not going to happen.”

Crain continued. “All of that being said, even if you have the coolest workspace at your office, you still need to compete for talent. When you think about the digital age and people working in technology, they are kind of calling the shots. So if they want to sit at home and work because they are building websites, they are going to.”

Will executives come around? Malone admits that executives may be alone in wanting to come back to the office. “The most senior people seem to be the last to catch on to this,” Malone said. “I wonder if part of it is that the people who rise to the top of organizations are just really good at interacting face-to-face, so they overvalue it. But this is where the ‘Supermind’ [the title of his latest book about the ways many human minds can come together and receive a boost from digital tools] comes in—all the staffers who know they can do the work remotely, with the help of computers, are a very strong force.”

Are better digital meeting tools the answer? A couple weeks ago I wrote about a study titled When Chance Encounters at the Water Cooler Are Most Useful. The thinking is that while production and communication have both increased for people working remotely, the down side is that we’ve communicated 21% less with our so-called “weak ties”—who may be important in product development. The author ultimately argues that what truly triggers innovation is an initial, in-person meeting; then remote interaction should work fine.

“Dare I raise the water-cooler argument?” the interviewer asked Malone. “I actually completely agree that we need those kinds of interactions. What I do not agree with is that you need to be in person to have them. The right kind of technology can enable them.” He and a few colleagues have created a program called Minglr that sounds like Tinder for office meetings. “You see a list of people on one side of the screen, and you click on those you might like to talk to, and then if they click on you you’re placed in a private video conference,” Malone said.

Time will tell if Minglr or anything else can fill the void of not meeting in-person. Or if we would even want it to. Stay tuned.

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