Businessman Standing at the Water Cooler
Myth #2: "Watercooler Magic."
iStockphoto/AVAVA
April 20, 2022 9:34 AM EDT

As much of the world begins to shift from the pandemic phase of Covid to the endemic, many executives see an opening to implement their “return-to-office” plans. But employees have spent over two years proving they can be productive from anywhere, with greater flexibility and balance in their lives, even under some of the most trying circumstances. And they won’t easily relinquish this progress.

So why do executives continue to press forward by trying to go back to 2019? Why are leaders ignoring the mounting evidence that desk workers are at least as productive today when they’re not commuting daily to the office, and that their lives and livelihoods are better in this hybrid world of work? In my conversations with executives, they typically point to three core issues to justify pressing for a return to the office: culture, connection, and creativity. Each is rooted in conventional wisdom—the mythology of the office—and each of them is flat out wrong.

Culture and Sense of Belonging

Corporate culture is typically defined by the attitudes and values that shape the behavior of an organization. When executives describe their desire to bring people back to the office, they usually mean getting back to pre-pandemic standards and rituals—often telling me that their goal is reigniting a “sense of belonging” at work to stem the tide of attrition.

However, our Future Forum Pulse, a quarterly survey of over 10,000 desk workers, shows that sense of belonging is now higher for hybrid—and fully remote—workers than for those working full-time in the office. What’s more, over the last two years of flexible work, the data show that sense of belonging has risen considerably for underrepresented groups—especially Black and Hispanic/Latino workers—while remaining relatively flat for their white colleagues. Academic researchers including Stanford’s Brian Lowery have suggested this is because flexibility provides the opportunity to step back from the constant code-switching and microaggressions of full-time office work.

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Flexible ways of working give executives more opportunities to interact with and motivate employees, combining frequent use of digital tools with occasional, intentional in-person gatherings. Under this model, managers can focus more on output and impact, not hours spent in the office or staring at a screen. That’s the foundation of a truly strong culture.

Executives who benefited most from office-based culture—the happy hours and corner offices—need to think about who they’re really building that culture for. If they focus on what they’ve missed, versus on what their employees have gained, they may end up reversing progress that’s been made on sense of belonging at work, especially among underrepresented groups.

Connection and Watercoolers

There have been serious concerns raised about the loss of “weak ties” at work during the pandemic, and the creative sparks that they theoretically generate, often rooted in antiquated studies. But as Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein notes, “there’s almost no data whatsoever” that chance meetings in the office hallway or breakroom generate greater creativity and innovation.

For about one-third of people in our research, weak ties have atrophied during the pandemic. But before jumping to conclusions, consider the broader context: first, the pandemic itself understandably impacted where people put their time and energy—on things like family needs and self-care, not the quarterly coffee chat with a colleague from another department. Second, high turnover combined with loading the work on remaining employees is a likely culprit for why workers have spent less time investing in these relationships over the last two years: it’s the workload, not location.

If the goal is to strengthen “weak ties” at work, just bringing people back to offices isn’t the answer. In fact, offices have become less conducive to these kinds of relationships over time: one study found that the shift to open-floor-plan offices has resulted in a 70% decrease in face-to-face interactions.

What does work? Bringing intention to interaction and proactively structuring connections across levels, functions, geographies, and teams—often with the help of digital tools. For example, Harvard Business School professor Raj Choudhury has demonstrated the power of virtual watercoolers—structured get togethers among senior leaders and interns—in increasing job performance and retention. Many companies are also taking advantage of applications like Donut or Gatheround, tools that help distributed teams connect, bond and build ties across the organization.

While these kinds of designed interactions may at first feel less organic than bumping into someone in the hallway, they have far greater potential to generate progress and are also less likely to result in the groupthink that occurs when chance encounters are largely limited to overlapping social circles.

Hybrid and remote work also doesn’t mean you never gather in person. Even companies that were fully remote pre-pandemic, like Gitlab and Automattic, got together quarterly or annually. Hybrid teams understand that these occasional retreats fulfill the primary reason people want to come together: for social connection.

Creativity and the Whiteboard

The power of the whiteboard to spark creative ideas and team alignment is one of the most enduring myths of the office. It’s true that a well-structured, prepared and moderated brainstorming session can yield great results. But typically, brainstorming results in groupthink and caters to extroverts and those in the majority.

In a survey of US desk workers last spring, we found no correlation between work location—full-time in the office, hybrid, or remote—and team creativity. But two groups did stand out:

  • People who said that they felt comfortable taking risks and asking coworkers for help were almost twice as likely to say that their teams were just as or even more creative than they were before the pandemic.
  • People who said that their companies had invested in new tools for facilitating collaboration since the onset of the pandemic were twice as likely to say they were just as or even more creative.

The secret to better brainstorming isn’t defaulting back to the “one-room schoolhouse chalkboard” model—it’s building an environment of psychological safety, and providing teams with the right collaboration tools.

All these myths point to the need to redesign how the future works with an intentional approach, to make work more flexible, inclusive, and connected.

And if for some reason you don’t believe the data or are still dead set on bringing employees back to the office five days a week, consider how your “forced reentry” plans might complicate the #1 challenge that almost every executive faces: retaining and attracting talent. Employees want and need greater flexibility at work, and our data shows that they’re ready to walk if they don’t get it.

 

Brian Elliott is the Executive Leader of Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first world, and co-author of How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to do the Best Work of their Lives.

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