Collaborate to innovate (Part I)
Collaborate to innovate (Part I)Matthew Syed, thought leader and expert onhuman behaviour and performance, talks to Fora Tailored Office about the role of the in-person meeting
‘I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with organisations that are really concerned about the impact that working from home in isolation has had on the effectiveness of their teams,’ says Matthew Syed. ‘David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, recently said that he would like all employees back to work in the office by summer’s end, and talked of the problems of mentoring new members of staff while working virtually.’
There’s a question about whether the social skills and ability to interact professionally of young people have been impacted by WFH
Goldman’s, which has 41,000 employees, is one of Syed’sclients, as are many other global companies. The writer, who has written books of popular philosophy and has a much-read column in The Sunday Times, is one of our foremost thinkers on human behaviour and performance. He says that the businesses he consults for are worried about how working away from the office has affected productivity and creativity within their organisations. ‘In particular, it’s the young people who have suffered more than most,’ he says, ‘and there is a question about whether their social skills and ability to interact professionally have been impacted’.
Syed understands that notwithstanding Goldman Sachs’ desire for a return to the office –and its new one billion pounds European headquarters in London boasts the largest trading floor of any bank in the city – we will almost certainly be facing a new flexible style of work, where some are in the office and others are still at home.
This does pose some real problems, though, when it comes to collaboration. ‘I was talking to a huge global tech business the other day,’ explains Syed, ‘and they, like many, are looking at a future hybrid working model. Their question was how do you genuinely include those who are not physically present? They understand that those in a physical space together have all the benefits of being able to read body language and see people’s reactions through peripheral vision. While those at home might only be able to see a powerpoint presentation. How then do you provide equal access to decision-making for those not literally in the room?’
Those in a physical space together have all the benefits of being able to read body language and see people’s reactions through peripheral vision
The answer to this, he says, may be to develop technology that can give those distant from the meeting as close to an in-real-life experience of the gathering as possible. Or, in the short term, to encourage team members to use an office for the benefits it can provide as a place for collaboration by coming in to spend time with one another.
‘My most recent book,’ says Syed, ‘is called Rebel ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, and there are a couple of chapters in it that are specifically about how to collaborate effectively. The workspace, he says, plays an important part: ‘Workspaces are either highly conducive to good collaboration, or obfuscate it.’
Workspaces are either highly conducive to good collaboration, or obfuscate it
He cites a few examples where businesses have understood the importance of this and points out that it is not always about providing meeting rooms or presentation suites, though these, of course, ensure platforms for discussion. ‘A famous example is MIT in America, which incubated extraordinary innovation because people were not allocated to their academic disciplines in particular buildings isolated from those specialising in other subjects. There were not buildings dedicated to maths or biochemistry or physics. Instead they were all intermixed, so physicists would bump into behavioural scientists and anthropologists. This led to unexpected outcomes.’
MIT in America incubated extraordinary innovation because scientists were not separated from each other by discipline, but instead were mixed together
Another story he tells is of how when Steve Jobs was building the Pixar headquarters in California, he apparently positioned the lavatories in the atrium, so people would have to walk past co-workers to get there, initiating impromptu conversations. ‘It’s what you could call the science of serendipitous encounters. Now that is very difficult to engineer in a virtual context, where you have a formal list of invitees and the whole experience is straight-jacketed.’
What we’re talking about here, says Syed, is the importance of creating environments where those famed water-cooler conversations can happen; where you can walk over to another desk and ask a question or make a suggestion; or, indeed, where you can gather in a space to bounce around ideas as a group.
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