Remote Work Is Always Efficient But Efficient Isn’t Always Effective
Working from a screen is efficient but when it comes to culture, efficiency isn’t everything.
A few weeks ago marked my return to in-person facilitation after 16 months. I’m not going to lie. As I began the week with a 5:30am start and a 90 minute commute, I was hardly overjoyed after a year and half of tumbling out of bed onto Teams.
Real life workshops can be expensive, inefficient, bad for the environment, and bad for you.
And they can be far, far better than collaborating online.
I’m going to risk upsetting the tech enthusiasts here — but when it comes to user experience — face to face workshops are the difference between watching a movie on an iPhone and seeing one in IMAX.
What was missing from workshops I’ve taken part in during the pandemic — although I was always looking at them, never actually in them — is the free-flowing, back-and-forth-and-sideways exchange of ideas that happens in person.
People just behave differently. They mess up. They swear. They spill drinks. No matter how much we’ve gotten used to being on screen, we’ve never actually forgotten that we are on screen. Days literally spent looking at ourselves.
It wasn’t just me saying this. Other people commented it felt like we were a team again.
The chance meetings — I literally had half a dozen in about four hours — don’t happen in our transactional world of screens.
Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation?
There’s no evidence of it, according to a piece in the New York Times.
“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” says Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”
As we take part in the return to the office we are seeing divergent thinking about the benefits of in-person work vs remote.
“Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” says Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.”
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, goes further — saying working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”
I think people are in danger of conflating three things: innovation, collaboration, and culture.
What Tim Cook is talking about is serendipitous innovation and the randomness of accidental insights. I had at least a couple of these insights this week based on what I overheard people say — this absolutely would not happen on a Teams or Zoom call.
When Jamie Dimon says remote work doesn’t work for culture, I think he probably means the ability to get to really know what makes a person tick. The ability to act authentically and unguarded. The mistake I think people are making is equating offices as being the only way of achieving that.
We can all think of remote first or remote only companies who appear to have great cultures. Buffer for example and (maybe until recently) Basecamp. However, both of these do international get togethers or retreats that bring people together on a semi-regular basis. That is — they recognise that remote work has its limits. No offices, but purposeful about culture.
The Impact of Loneliness
When it comes to innovation there’s a power in working alongside people. As Tristan Kromer writes — being alone is hard. “Innovating should be a joyful process, best shared with people whose interests and goals align with yours. But in a more practical sense, working alone makes it hard to spot our biases and misconceptions.”
This is a one size fits no-one problem. As I’ve written before the new world of work has to integrate some very different personas into the workplace.
- The people that are raring to get back and be around people.
- The ‘office resistant’ employees who would quit rather than return.
- The group of people who have a fear of re-entry back into society because of Covid.
Innovation isn’t one thing to these people.
Collaboration isn’t one thing to these people.
And neither is culture.
Every employee may be experiencing your organisational culture differently. However, if we get the culture right for the individual, then most of the other stuff we do, like delivering great service, building an enduring brand, or innovating will just be a natural by-product.
Working from a screen is efficient (if you conveniently ignore the carbon impact of back to back video calls). But when it comes to culture, efficiency isn’t everything. We’ve all had very efficient colleagues who are total arseholes.
This isn’t about requiring people back in the office. It’s about letting them influence where they can do their best work and knowing where your best work happens.
And that’s about being efficient and effective.