What’s next? Remote work and its effects on people/innovation?

Picture of Ezabel Nihmet

Ezabel Nihmet

We have been discussing the pros and cons of different work configurations, full office remote working, part remote part in office, and everyone returns to the office as before. (Noting the fact that we have all experienced a new dynamic and after a unique experience no one is the same as before. It’s something that we so often forget.) Every century work changes and new changes are coming; let’s embrace the opportunity for a unique situation.

Our team is small, and our experience going from office to the home, conference room to zoom, was decisive, swift, and increased productivity. As everything new does, it took a little adjustment, but our team has found an outstanding balance.

We have daily 30-minute check-ins, they originally were meant to help the team navigate the change and high levels of uncertainty in the environment. As we have become accustomed to our new arrangements, this has now served to synchronize the teams’ focus and cross-team collaborations for the day and weeks.

Adam Grant is a contemporary well known for his expertise in operational psychology. He has a great podcast analyzing the effects of remote work on teams. Two keys to making it work are

a. Share identities — making everyone feel like they are in this together. It’s important to not separate people by groups and identifying as us vs. them between the two different groups (for example, remote workgroups and in-office groups).

The key to success is having shared goals and clear roles. It’s the same for making in-office teams work well together as well.

b. Shared Understanding — knowing each other’s situation to understand their mindset.

Neither point has to do with physical proximity to colleagues but how you communicate successfully with each other. It’s about trust, the fundamentals of any successful and productive relationship.

But what are the psychological and innovative effects of the loss of in-person office work? The only question that seems to be of importance is not that of financial but that of philosophical, biological, and psychological.

We, as humans, are herd animals; much like the elephant, we tend to become depressed and psychologically stressed when we are separated and singled out. Skin is the largest organ in the body, and it needs to be touched (not like that), maybe as a handshake when greeting others, at least. The rate of growth of mental illness has become staggeringly high due to the loss of the family unit and the community once based on physical proximity or religious gatherings. Many have turned to work to substitute for the loss of these past support systems. What happens when people also lose the last place they have come to for a sense of gathering? They adapt. We will find new social structures that will open us to new experiences and broaden our perspective.

In this speech by R. W. Hamming, a successful physicist, talks about how the scientist can find world relevant research and its key. Just like our work, can we contribute to the world around us in our day today? Can we also add to our companies in a more productive innovated manner? Hamming stated that scientists who worked with an open door, who ate with the scientist from the other departments, i.e., physicists were with the biologist, were the ones who were able to see more clearly what problem to focus on that was more relevant to the world today.

When we were so focused on going and coming to a workplace, we were, in essence working behind a closed door. Also, in the same environment, always with the say coworkers. With the change to work remotely, we can change our whole social structure, therefore opening our metaphoric office doors and different people, different opinions, and different world views.

“Some people work with their doors open in clear view of those who pass by, while others carefully protect themselves from interruptions. Those with the door open get less work done each day, but those with their door closed tend not know what to work on, nor are they apt to hear the clues to the missing piece to one of their “list” problems. I cannot prove that the open door produces the open mind, or the other way around. I only can observe the correlation.”

With a loss of restrictions to space and time, innovation will flourish — the opportunity for upward mobility and cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural exchange multiply. Instead of stuffing our time with endless, needless meetings, travel to those meetings, and the office and superficial, unnecessary gossip, the opportunity will open to allow us to have space and time for depth of thought and new interests. People find fulfillment outside of their work, allowing them to recharge and therefore bring a better mindset in the office.

What I think will happen is we will turn back to those old support systems. In our previous model, we were turning to work for everything. And in that, we had a false sense of belonging and purpose. There was no balance.

In the model, we were living just four months ago; everything in our life was very homogeneous. At work, we mingled with those people that were just like us. Usually, around the same age, same background, same type of education. Innovation comes with a mix of different minds, different experiences. We were, in essence, working behind a closed door. Separated from the rest of the world. Silicon Valley only knew other Silicon Valley people. It was only those problems that were being solved, and the innovation was starting to stale. How can you innovate if everyone and everything around you is the same?

No, we will not lose serendipity; we will gain a different form and a more varied opportunity for a moment of serendipity.

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