What if remote workplaces are actually more conducive to the sharing of big ideas?
Flashback to 2006. It’s 9am (okay, it’s 9:32am) and, after a crushingly claustrophobic commute downtown, you finally sit down at your desk inside an ol’ fashioned, brick & mortar ad agency.
It’s a simpler time. Elevators ding. Offensively weak coffee pods brew in the kitchen. But there’s work to be done. And so, in a desperate attempt to limit distractions for at least 45 minutes, you start your session the same way you do most mornings:
By firing up Spotify and plugging in your earphones — just like half the people in your office.
Since the pandemic, the proverbial “water cooler” theory has been discussed ad nauseum. The argument goes something like this: by working remotely, we’re missing out on all those chance encounters and casual conversations between coworkers — the kind that supposedly spark big, business-changing ideas.
The headlines are damning. “Home-working kills creativity and innovation” according to a recent feature in the Guardian, which suggests “The best companies will get back to the office — it’s the only way workers can read the room and optimally align their interactions.”
Many prominent CEOs seem to agree. Remote work is a “culture killer for companies,” according to Saks’ Marc Metrick. Similar sentiments were echoed by Apple’s Tim Cook and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who says it simply “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation”.
The arguments make sense. But are they true?
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Harvard professor Ethan Bernstein, who’s studied the topic, said the concept of serendipitous productivity is “more fairytale than reality”.
“…If you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation…but is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity…useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? [In that sense], there is almost no data whatsoever.”
In fact, a 2019 study showed that “open concept” offices result in 70% fewer face-to-face interactions compared to those with cubicles — suggesting that, when we’re stripped of our privacy, many feel an even greater need to hide.
Can I grab you for a second?
We’re back in 2016. You’re working on a big pitch and need to run some ideas past your (extremely busy) boss. Her office is less than 20 feet away — but after a series of back-to-back meetings, her revolving door is firmly closed. The unspoken sign for “don’t bother me right now”.
No prob. Maybe you’ll just bounce some ideas off your deskmate instead? The one who sits approximately 3 feet in front of your face? You look towards them, but their earphones are in.
Nevermind. Don’t want to be a bother.
For better or worse, these subtle anti-social cues are largely eliminated in virtual environments. Nowadays, you can instantly chat your boss knowing they’ll see it as soon as they have a free second — and without imposing any physical interruption. In that sense, our coworkers have never been more accessible. (Perhaps too accessible?)
For some, the art of sharing ideas is also far more approachable via virtual channels. Think of all the people who don’t like speaking up in big brainstorms — but ask them to email you some thoughts after the fact, and they thrive. For these work styles, our new arrangements work perfectly.
Even still, it’s hard to imagine virtual collaboration as an outright or permanent replacement to IRL teamwork. Ideas are rarely sold on screens alone. They require discussion, persuasion, even the odd presentation prop. And sometimes there’s just no replacing the magic of being in the same room — not to mention our ability to physically leave it at the end of the day.
There’s also much to be said for the emotionally meaningful human relationships we build at the office, simply by virtue of spending so much time together. US research has shown that employees with a “best friend at work” are 7 times more likely to be truly engaged with their job. Which bears the question: can we realistically develop the same kind of deep interpersonal relationships with co-workers and clients when we’re multiple screens and hundreds of miles apart? Possibly. But as we all found out the hard way during the last 18+ months, virtual chats can be a sorry substitute for face-to-face connection — and we’re a lot less likely to stick around for a beer after the meeting has concluded.
So, what will post-pandemic agency life look like?
Your guess is as good as ours.
But surely, there will be no black and white solution to our “new normal” (everyone take a drink). Many companies, including Facebook and Shopify, have already committed to going “digital by default” or making remote work a permanent option. Others will insist on butts in seats.
Our team at BAM hopes to find a happy middle ground. One that caters to individual work styles and pragmatic client needs. Because if we learned anything over the last 18 months, it’s that our people can and will deliver exceptional results no matter where they work.
The pandemic has sucked. But we’ve embraced digital brainstorms with open arm emojis; landed new accounts; hired stand-up comedians to perform on Zoom in lieu of proper pub nights. And whatever happens next, we’ll keep feeding the unique culture and chemistry that made BAM one of the country’s top employers in 2021 — even if it means a few less dogs in the office, and a few extra screens in our breakout spaces.
One thing’s for sure though: whether it’s once, three, or five days a week, we’re just looking forward to being in the same room again. And it has nothing to do with work.