Where should we work?

I read an interesting article by David Amerland writing for Forbes.com on the debate around working from home, the controversy around Marisa Mayer’s rescinding of Yahoo employee’s working from home, and the debate raging around teleworking in general.

He concludes that in the end we ‘still need office face-time’ if the magic of working together on ideas is to happen.

I would totally agree that ‘face-time’ is vitally important. We are all aware that only a small proportion of communication is verbal so emails and phone or video conferences will only get you so far (the miscommunication problems you have when relaying difficult information by email will tell you that). But I would completely disagree that the word ‘office’ needs to be in his conclusion. It’s all about context, and sometimes the office is the very thing that stops ‘face-time’ from happening.

Offices, when not appropriately designed or suited to the needs of the organisation’s culture, can sometimes hold back collaboration. People hide behind piles of paperwork, deliberately avoid each other, and operate in silos even in one shared space. For a lot of offices, we might as well all be teleworking from different places for all the collaboration that actually happens. Of course, there is a lot of incidental conversation that goes on in an office, but most of the real communication still happens via email and it’s hard to wander across the floor to speak to someone or interrupt them.

This could also be the reason why office parties are traditionally so squeamishly awful: these people are not actually used to talking to each other at work, let alone socially. And the reason you have such things as ‘team-building’ and ‘away days’ to get people out of the office in order to force some real interaction.

Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette can talk about the ‘magic’ of people spending time together ‘noodling on ideas’ precisely because their office is designed for collaborative working (check out the recent Management Today gallery of images of their new Kings Cross office in London. In the middle of the all the shots of the big glass box, there is an office floor with actual floor cushions).

Another thing that happens a lot in offices when people get together is complaining. It’s another way of bonding with your co-workers, but it also reinforces negative mindsets, resistance to organisational change, and obstructive ideas. You could argue that it’s better to spend some more time apart from each other so that we can actually make the best of the time we are together.

The real challenges for organisations, especially those organisations trying to bring about cultural change (banking anyone?), is how to make the face-time really count; how to promote collaborative behaviour when the technology we use enables us to work individually and to connect and disconnect at will. Regardless of whether we work in an office, at home, or in the local wi-fi café, we can all choose to switch off whenever we like. If we really want magic or collaboration or noodling or whatever you want to call it, then we need to work on:

  1. Building a working environment that supports collaboration, wherever that environment is
  2. Creating space and time during the working day for people to actually talk to each other, and actually bring people together in a meaningful way
  3. Getting senior leaders to model the behaviours we want to see in everyone else

Maybe then we’ll get people to actually work together for the good of the organisation, rather than working separately and in different directions?

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