It’s been widely acknowledged that the pandemic has triggered a radical change in the way we work (KPMG, Forbes). For many, the last year has meant delivering or receiving news of redundancies, juggling work with home schooling and caring responsibilities, and increasing workloads as employers try to protect income and control costs. For individuals such as knowledge workers, now spending 100 percent of their working life at home, there are also positives to be grateful for, whether it’s sharing more moments with loved ones during your day, grabbing a few hours’ extra sleep per week or saving your commuting costs.
Now, as we begin to contemplate moving into a post-pandemic ‘New Reality’, organisations are considering how our working modes will evolve once again, and the optimal balance between home-working and the future role of the office. Insights from KPMG’s 2020 CEO Outlook Survey suggest that CEOs see the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink the way we work and communicate: thinking about the future, 69 percent said they planned to downsize their office space and 77 percent said they would continue to build on the use of digital collaboration tools. As individuals, we may be wondering how we can preserve the benefits of remote working, and if we are guided by behavioural science research when creating this future for our organisations, it is clear we will need to optimise our use of the office to get the best from ourselves and our teams.
Individual Creativity to Organisational Innovation
For businesses, creativity is key to creating and maintaining a competitive advantage. ‘Creativity’ is coming up with fresh ideas for changing products, services, and processes to better achieve the organisation’s goals. Perhaps the most prominent model for the creative process is the one proposed by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who suggests that there are four components necessary for any creative response. The first three are down to the individual: having expertise in the relevant domain, having psychological and personality traits conducive to novel thinking, and having the intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity out of interest, enjoyment, or a personal sense of challenge.
However, the final component of the creative process cannot be achieved at the individual level. This is down to the social environment, which involves a myriad of factors that can either heighten or hinder an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Translating the theory of creativity from the individual to organisational level, if the creative process represents what goes on at the individual level, the product of collective creative processes is innovation. Innovation requires having collective resources in the task domain, having the collective motivation to innovate, and having the infrastructure to support innovation management: including the space and the tools.
Virtual working limits serendipitous discovery
When we were working in the office for 4-5 days per week, perhaps we did not consciously appreciate the key role of the organisational social context in facilitating collective innovation. If you said you were feeling a little professionally uninspired by back-to-back video calls in recent months, you would be in good company. The extreme movement that occurred in March 2020 from a mainly in-office model to a fully virtual one has prompted organisations to reconsider the best balance for the future, with revolutionary results (Nationwide and Santander have declared moves to ‘work anywhere’ models; Financial Times, The Times).
These moves are commendable examples of employee-led design; however, this is only part of the productivity puzzle and the remainder is solved by rethinking the role of the office. Research suggests that most complex problem-solving tasks require the individual to cross-fertilise their thinking with other outside influences, opportunities for which are regularly provided in the office environment. Such ‘serendipitous discoveries’ function like shortcuts, in that not all elements, interactions, and dynamics need to be fully understood. Serendipity creates opportunities for complex problem solving, counterfactual thinking, and exclusive discoveries. ‘Detour serendipity’ is discovering something due to being in the right place, and ’communal serendipity’ is accidentally discovering something by combining the right people. Such instances might also be known as ‘water cooler moments’, and are much less likely to occur during sustained working from home, where back-to-back video calls have clearly defined agendas and leave limited time for the more informal discussion that typically leads to ‘serendipitous’ moments.
Bank of England Governor Andy Haldane recently summarised this issue well during a speech at the Engaging Business Summit: ’virtual meetings risk losing the capacity to explore uncharted territory, to share tacit knowledge and personal information. Those informal between-meetings conversations are, in my experience, the bedrock of relationship-building and the key to trust–building.’ With 25 percent of businesses saying they intend using home-working as a permanent business model, these missing jigsaw pieces must be elevated for consideration when organisations are designing their returns to the office, including the design of both the new employee value propositions (EVPs) and the new workspace.
So, What Is The Future of the Office?
Gone are the days we head to the office to tackle our to do list; we will embark on our commutes far less frequently to collaborate, socialise and maintain trusted relationships with team members who have the skills and motivations to tackle complex problems. KPMG’s recent Future of Work report with the Financial Services Skills Commission suggests that there is a continuum of views in the FS industry on the future role of the office vs. remote working, with the workforce embracing the flexibility which has been established during COVID-19. So, if there is a shared organisational space, how can it be repurposed to best support the organisation’s objectives? The space and tools within the new office should be designed around two needs: collaboration and social. If we consider the component theory of creativity, the office will be vital for reinforcing extrinsic motivations through in-office perks, maximising opportunities for ‘serendipitous’ interactions such as overhearing a colleague’s discussion or catching up with a team member from a previous project after bumping into them in the lift.
Avoiding creativity burnout until then
This is an expansive, multi-faceted topic which can’t be fully justified in a single blog, however, until the post-pandemic utopia we’re yearning for is upon us we can apply these behavioural science concepts to avoid a burnout in creativity and innovation in our professional networks. As much as possible, try to keep your experiences open and diverse. Take time out to walk during the working day, letting your mind wander to cross-fertilise ideas between previous meetings and perhaps come across a serendipitous stimulus in the outside world. When planning for the return to the office, leaders should consider how to embed creativity into virtual and physical working environments, reinforcing openness, idea-sharing and regularly connecting with colleagues for informal discussion. Most importantly, consider how to re-frame your day to enable serendipitous moments. It’s beginning to be collectively acknowledged that back-to-back video calls aren’t serving the workforce (CBS News), so consider how to bring more variety into the ways you engage. Could a 30-minute scheduled video call be replaced by a phone call as you take a walk, and lead to a better solution?