Business anthropologist Simon Roberts believes great innovations arise from physical proximity.
Stripe Partners
February 22, 2022 11:48 AM EST

Many of us have spent little time in physical proximity with our colleagues over the past year, and this next chapter of work is likely to still include reduced in-person interaction. How do we minimize the cognitive and social impact of not being physically present with each other?

Among the researchers thinking about this question is Simon Roberts, a business anthropologist who has studied “embodied knowledge,” the idea that humans’ understanding arises from their entire bodies’ interactions with and perceptions of the world. The author of The Power of Not Thinking, Roberts led a human-centered R&D team at Intel and co-founded a London-based consulting firm that uses social and data science to help companies innovate. We reached out to him to discuss the impact of reduced physical proximity on work and what his advice is for navigating that.

We took away three key points from the conversation::

  • History shows us that critical innovations arise from chance human encounters.
  • Behavioral norms around even small tasks must change in this new working world.
  • Days in the office should be tightly customized around the nature of the work being done, including for different stages of the same project.

Here are excerpts from our discussion, edited for space and clarity:

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There are some companies that have decided to go entirely remote. What do you think of that approach?

If you look at the history of innovation, the example I always use—because it’s a brilliant one that’s really well documented in a book called The Idea Factory—is the history of Bell Labs. A lot of the really tremendous innovations that emerged throughout the 20th century at Bell Labs were inventions that happened by accident, often through chance encounters or people talking in the canteen.

I do strongly believe that the history of ideas took place where people got together to share ideas, to debate, to discuss, and to learn from each other, whether it’s Bell Labs or the coffee shops of 18th-century London, which turned into the stock market. These are places where ideas were not only embodied in people, but then people learned from others in very physical ways. There’s a paper about the effect of Prohibition on innovation and creativity in America, which showed the number of patent applications went down during the period. In other words, bar talk led to inventions, creativity, and patent filing.

In the short term, yes, we can often be more productive, but in the long term, great companies continue to innovate and come up with new things. Is that really possible in the same ways when we’re all remote? I’m not so sure.

What are some of the things that people and companies need to do to make hybrid setups work for all parties?

Hybrid work involves asymmetries. A simple example is a meeting where three people are in the room and two people aren’t. It’s very easy for the two people that aren’t in the room to get crowded out of that conversation. Some of that can be addressed with clever hardware and software, and some of that needs to be addressed with behavioral norms being laid out. The grammar of a meeting or the grammar of how somebody takes a meeting needs to change a little bit to make sure that you are inclusive to the people being piped in from over the internet. Those are very everyday things, but I think they’re really important.

One of the things that frustrates me about the way people talk about it is that it’s very much cookie cutter, like ‘This is the right way to do it.’ Every company needs to look at itself and ask, ‘What do we do? Who are we? What sort of work do our teams do?’ Those questions are so particular that it’s not possible to sit in an ivory tower as an academic or management thinker and say, ‘This is what you do.’ It has to be very, very, very case-by-case. Some of it is about striking this balance between what individuals need and want and what a company needs and wants to survive.

Can you give us a very specific example–something you’re implementing or thinking of implementing at your company?

In our line of work, we have a lot of very fuzzy, qualitative data. Doing that together in a room is so much more powerful than doing it on a mural board or some sort of virtual whiteboard space. What we’ve said to teams is, ‘Well, that’s the stuff where it’s really important to be in the room together.’

Then, there are going to be other types of work that the project involves which are actually much better suited to everybody being at home. And then there are other phases of a project where we need a little bit of both. A lot of it is encouraging our teams to be explicit about what phases of work are going to require what style of working and making sure that people recognize where they are in a process and, therefore, what style of working is going to be expected of them.

You’re saying you need to customize when you’re in the office, and when you’re out of office, to this specific project….

This goes to my point: Every company is different in their own way, the same way that Tolstoy wrote that every family is unhappy in their own way. Our projects last 12 weeks, roughly speaking, and each phase of a project is about three weeks long. They’re all very different. We’ve thought through, ‘Well, what works best in each phase? Where can we be really properly hybrid? Where can’t we?’

It’s still not perfect. I like being in a room with Post-It notes everywhere, being able to draw on the walls, and people seeing where the energy and the excitement around an idea might be. That’s brilliant—you can feel that energy from people and know when you’ve got something.

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