Is The Office Water Cooler Really A Font Of Innovation?

Office culture

Most of the supporters of office culture say that you don’t get those all-important water cooler conversations when working from home. There is no random meeting with people from outside your immediate team or serendipity. Innovation comes from bouncing ideas around a busy office.

But the reality is usually nothing like that. Many people are dreading a return to the office not because it means they will have to start commuting again – although that is a good reason in itself – but because they feel lonely and isolated. They don’t enjoy the shallow relationships they have in the office environment. They feel more connected to colleagues through digital tools rather than physical proximity.

Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Insead business school in France, and Constance Hadley, an organisational psychologist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business recently published a study in the MIT Sloan Review after interviewing hundreds of executives just before the pandemic.

Almost 80% of the research participants said they struggle to connect to team members and 58% felt that their work relationships are superficial. The study suggests that when work structures were more strictly hierarchical it allowed better relationships to form because workers spent more time with people doing similar tasks. The global 24/7 team is more agile and cost-effective, but people can be working on different time zones or hopping in and out of projects for short periods.

The Financial Times recently quoted one of the workers featured in this study: “I am interchangeable, they have made it so anyone can do my job on the team. Maybe they would miss me, but I am not so sure.” This loss of camaraderie cannot be fixed just by getting everyone back in the office again, it is a cultural failing if workers feel that they are merely an interchangeable cog in the machine.

It’s clear that some professional jobs require an in-person experience – banking or consultant roles that rely on apprentices learning on the job rely on this – but in most cases office-based jobs can be performed remotely. The past year has proven this and most companies are now exploring a hybrid future where workers can stay at home more often.

However, this Insead research demonstrates that for many professionals there is no daily lightning bolt of innovation by the water cooler, merely the drudge of listening to conversations about football, nights out, and the soaps. Banter doesn’t lead to productivity or a feeling of control over your working day.

Many digital natives, particularly those in Generation Z and millennials, are familiar with tools that allow them to interact virtually with friends and colleagues. When these workers say that they have better relationships with remote colleagues than the people they work with in the office, then you know that there is a cultural problem in your organisation. Hauling everyone back to the office is not the answer.

 

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