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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 19-08-2020 23:14

Serendipity: Collateral loss of remote work?

We have shown that we can work remotely, responsibly and productively. But is being productive all that work is about?

For years before the coronavirus pandemic, most companies saw remote work as not serious, or as a perk. It was something to be offered on Fridays or as part of a special package for working parents. Many companies thought that it was inefficient and ineffective. They often distrusted the concept of their employees working beyond their control.  

The sudden turnaround most professionals had to make in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has proven this misconception wrong. Remote work is just as efficient, and even in the case of the working parents who have made huge sacrifices, has been just as effective. We have all shown that we can work remotely, responsibly and productively. But is being productive all that work is about? 

It turns out that it is not. As Dr. Giancarlo Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD said in a recent Harvard Business Review article ‘In praise of the office’: “The point of the office … is not to make people more productive. It is to bring them together.” ​

And what happens when people are together? They start talking and sparking ideas off each other. In an article for the BBC, Dr. Lynda Grattan, a professor at the London Business School who specialises in the future of work, states that  “quite a lot of the ways that we make decisions in organisations aren't made in meetings. They're made in the corridors.”

Many professionals who commuted to offices before the pandemic, often complaining bitterly while they were there, now miss their offices. Of course, this is partly to do with the strain of working at home with everyone else trapped there too, with negligible social life. But it is also because they miss aspects that are essential to office life: the banter, the buzz and, above all, the camaraderie.

If you have ever worked in an office you may have had that serendipitous moment when you went to get a cup of coffee or bumped into someone casually in the lift and had an important conversation, sometimes even a life-changing one. These are the moments that are very hard to replicate through remote work. Companies today do virtual breakfasts, bingo and online games, but it all tends to be a little forced and unnatural, and is more about team building than sparking creativity.

The BBC published another interesting article in May about a social media start-up called Buffer. The company switched to all remote workers in 2015, realising early on that, while using a mentoring scheme and the Slack technology platform were useful, they would have to proactively work at creating serendipitous moments. Among other face-to-face activities, they also institutionalised a “things you might not have known about” weekly summary where [team mate Nicole] … combs through all the communication of the entire company and surfaces interesting things.”

Remote work is functional but it does not allow space for creative interaction. We will have to work hard to recreate that. Companies around the world are evaluating whether and how to send people back to their offices and many, including Twitter, Facebook and BP, are opting to continue with remote work for the present moment. Thus, we must begin to think ahead, to evaluate what the office of the future will look like and be like. This BBC graphic article from August depicts a future where “the only reason Laila [the protagonist] goes into the office now is for this kind of interaction – in which meeting people in real life produces better results than seeing each other online.”

Once again this refers back to productivity but ignores creativity, that water cooler moment when a random conversation sparks off something new and unexpected. 

In a recent SAGE webinar, “Top tips for switching to teaching online,” Dr. Tom Chatfield, author, tech philosopher and educator, suggested opening up online classrooms for 15 minutes before and after the actual class. He promotes this to encourage random creative conversations.  While this may work in the classroom, it is hard to implement at work, where people often have back-to-back virtual meetings all day long. 

As companies around the world rethink going back to the office, let us hope that they do not ignore the value of serendipity and find ways of recreating those water cooler moments online.

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Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson is a clear communications consultant. A British native, Joanna is an Argentine citizen who has made her home in Buenos Aires.

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