Nearly two years after the height of the pandemic, the return to office (RTO) versus work from home (WFH) debate continues. When should I come into the office? How frequently should I be in the office? Why should I come into the office at all? After two years of debate, we should be more certain of our perspectives.
However, we are still stuck on platitudes and attitudes. Senior leaders are not short on clichés. CEOs have proclaimed, “It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle,” or we are a “connected culture,” and finally, “Our culture of collaboration, innovation, and apprenticeship thrives when our people come together,” to mention a few. Some have even resorted to begging. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called the ability to work remotely a “privilege” and went on to say, “I’ll get on my knees. I’ll do push-ups. Whatever you want,” to get employees back in the office. Yet, on the other side of the argument, employees’ attitudes are, if you mandate that I return to the office, “I quit!” They feel as if they have proven their ability to be productive and prefer flexible working arrangements.
We should not be surprised that we have reverted to platitudes and attitudes in this debate. The reality is the science is still catching up to the rhetoric. It is a complicated debate. The approach that works well for productivity might not work well for innovation. The flexibility that employees desire might conflict with an organization’s culture. What works for a financial services company might not work well for a technology enterprise. The reality is that there is no one size fits all, and it will take years for us to truly have a comprehensive, evidence-based set of solutions for hybrid work.
This leaves us with one choice. We need to cobble together circumstantial evidence, with anecdotal support, anchored in previous research, and move forward with great caution. So, where does this leave us? It reminds me of my favorite platitude of all. We need to bring people together, face-to-face in “moments that matter.” Of course, this requires a strategy in determining the most critical moments to be in-person, face-to-face.
Based on years of network science research and a number of recent experiments, the Connected Commons believes there are three major network advantages in being face-to-face:
- Discovery advantage
- Relational energy advantage
- Cohesion advantage
We believe that organizations need to first ask the question, “What are we trying to accomplish?” Then and only then, will they know how and when to get together. It is a form-follows-function approach. If we know what we are trying to accomplish, we can then, and only then, build the most appropriate set of social connections to facilitate a given outcome. The reality is that we weren’t really that good at executing these gatherings when we predominately worked in the office. Therefore, mandating people to return to the office for two days a week is really nothing more than playing the social lottery. It will increase the odds of a given interaction but not by much. A more targeted, moments-that-matters approach could significantly increase those odds.
The Discovery Advantage
One of the very first questions that emerged when we were forced to work remotely was, “What about the water-cooler conversations?” After all, the chance encounters that generate new ideas are the lifeblood of innovation, which brings on the curiosity. From a network perspective, these are the bridging connections that are outward looking from a team, providing access to more ideas, insight, and information, and therefore enhancing discovery. The problem is that these connections deteriorated immediately, declining by almost 30%, within a remote context, during the first few months of the pandemic.
Of course, this resulted in less discovery. One large technology company noticed a 24% decline in the hours its employees devoted to generating new ideas when they were propelled into remote work. Another technology company reinforced this finding when it discovered that the single largest behavioral shift among employees working virtually was a statistically significant decline in curiosity. Perhaps the greatest advantage to getting together in person from time to time is to refuel discovery.
However, it is far more nuanced than just coming back to the office. Simply asking people to be back in the office two days a week without greater intention is leaving discovery to chance, or playing the social lottery, increasing your odds by maybe 4%. Moving forward, from a network perspective we need to design Discovery Moments that Matter.
There are a few studies that might be useful as we formulate our discovery approaches.
One study evaluated the probability that one team would adopt another team’s technology. They found that the closer two teams’ workspaces are, the more likely they are to adopt each other’s ideas. Perhaps a bit surprising however, was that the effect of distance was highly nonlinear. They divided the building footprint into quarters and found that only those teams that were in the same quarter of the building exhibited knowledge sharing. Being in the same building, at the same time only matters if you are actually really close, less than 200 feet from one another. When it comes to discovery, physical proximity seems to matter.
However, that might not be enough. There is another important dimension to discovery. A different study also emphasized proximity, but its researchers go on to suggest that how well individuals know each other also has a major effect. In their study they found that teams that were closest to each other were far more likely to share, but the effect of sharing was twice as much for those who did not have a preexisting relationship. In other words, when new bridging connections were formed, discovery doubled. We must be careful to avoid overgeneralizing such studies; however, they do offer insight to help us get started in constructing Discovery Moments that Matter.
The Relational Energy Advantage
Perhaps the most notable benefit of getting together face-to-face is the relational energy advantage. Leaders and employees actually agree on this one. A primary reason to get back together is to refuel employee energy. Based on our research, when employees were asked to select the primary reason for returning to the office, 41% selected reenergizing team members. We know that thriving organizations have a higher number of energizing connections versus de-energizing connections. These organizations tend to have a three-to-one ratio of energizing to deenergizing connections. This should not be a surprise; our energy helps us to positively influence others.
The problem is, energy does not translate well in a remote environment. Zoom is awesome for conveying information and knowledge, but our energy is less contagious in a virtual format. In fact, we have seen a significant drop in relational energy since the beginning of the pandemic. Figure 1. illustrates this, the network graph on the left represents one department from within the larger company of a little more than 120 employees working in a face-to-face, in-person environment pre-pandemic. Positive energy was relatively high with more than 50% of individuals showing up as strong providers of positive energy to their direct connections (green shaded nodes). This was a conducive environment for positively influencing others.
Now compare this to the same organization on the right after working remotely for 20 months. Two things jump out. The network has spread out as a result of the erosion of bridging connections, and only 23% of these employees are now positive energy providers. In this organization, the loss of energy has limited positive influence.
Figure 1. Relational Energy Shift Across Time
The good news is both energy and bridging connections can be restored, especially with the shift toward a more intentional hybrid model. As an example, a large consumer products organization conducted a comprehensive network analysis and recognized the erosion of bridging connections and a decrease in network energy while working remotely. As they transitioned into a more hybrid working model, they promptly turned their attention toward solving these issues.
As a result, they launched a series of in-person events and interventions aimed at restoring bridge connections across teams. They also focused on a reengagement strategy to help rebuild employee ownership toward the company’s purpose. The organization knew that it needed to first reconnect employees to one another and then reconnect them to the company’s grander vision. As a result, connectivity increased by 37% and positive energy improved by 20%. When left to chance, in a remote environment, positive employee energy will likely dissipate. However, creating energy moments that matter can reverse these patterns and restore the relational energy advantage.
The Cohesion Advantage
During the initial stages of working remotely as a result of the pandemic, cohesion was not a major concern. In fact, bonding connections, which best represent cohesion, actually increased. In one technology company, we found that bonding capital among close collaborators increased by 40% in the first few months of the pandemic. Groups with strong cohesion are able to move quickly through conceptual iterations by sharing ideas, challenging assumptions, and solving complex problems.
We should not be surprised that we were able to maintain or even enhance these connections. Research suggests that when working virtually, bonding social capital requires less effort to sustain than bridging social capital. However, as time passed, bonding capital dropped off by more than 25%, perhaps as a result of burnout, exhaustion, and employee churn. A recent study suggests that 77% of employees have experienced employee burnout, which has adversely affected their work and relationships.
In another study, researchers ran an experiment where participants were asked to influence people that they did not know. Half these participants wrote emails, while the other half engaged in-person using the exact same scripts. The face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to positively influence than an email. We can only suspect that Zoom interactions would improve these odds, however, we also know that as much as 80% of our ability to influence someone else, happens in these in-person interactions.
Moments that Matter Experimentation
The problem with cobbling together circumstantial evidence with anecdotal support is it doesn’t lead to universal solutions. However, the hunches and perspectives generated from these findings can lead to higher fidelity experimentation. That is always better than chasing platitudes that lead to mandates, whether they are effective, and attitudes that are often driven by limited perspective and selfish interests. If we engage in structured experimentation, the science can prevail, and we will progress to an even higher level of work, post pandemic.
Based on these learnings, we have opportunities to experiment in such areas as:
- Designing discovery moments that matter by creating opportunities for employees to come together in person and build new connections, such as team-building activities or cross-functional projects
- Focusing on physical interactions by arranging workspaces in a way that encourages teams to be located in close proximity to one another, ideally within 200 feet
- Encouraging the formation of new connections by providing opportunities for employees to interact with people they don’t already know, such as through mentoring programs or rotating team members
- Incorporating other dimensions to discovery such as cognitive and demographic diversity and fostering an open culture that encourages experimentation, exploration, and learning
Relational Energy Experiments
- Creating energy moments that matter, such as team-building activities or opportunities for employees to connect and collaborate in-person
- Launching a reengagement strategy to help rebuild employee ownership toward the company’s purpose, with the goal of reconnecting employees to one another and the company’s grander vision
- Conducting a comprehensive network analysis to identify areas of erosion of bridging connections and decrease in network energy, and using that information to inform the reengagement strategy
- Monitoring the progress of energy strategies and measuring the impact on connectivity on positive energy
- Creating cohesive moments that matter by organizing in-person team-building activities or opportunities for teams to connect and collaborate face-to-face
- Prioritizing team cohesion when new team members join or when there are complex problems to solve
- Encouraging team members to engage in face-to-face interactions, even if it is just a short meeting or conversation because it is more likely they will positively influence and build trust.
- Recognizing and addressing employee burnout and promoting work-life balance to prevent it