All hail the mighty water cooler – the oft-praised bastion of corporate culture, where the strategies of organizations great and small are made or destroyed in the hushed tones of whispered conversations among those who gather for daily hydration.
By now, everyone who can has been working remotely for several weeks. Companies are starting to ponder what to do as the world opens back up. A few have already committed to fully remote work going forward while many others of all sizes are trying to divine how they will move forward.
There haven’t been any solid scientific studies on the overall effect on productivity of this sudden mass migration to remote work, but there also haven’t been screams across the news media of a precipitous drop-off in productivity. I’m sure there were hiccups early on has people and organizations got their feet under them and then started working it out.
The shift has triggered, in many organizations, a reset of Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development as staff sort out new ways to behave and interact as part of fully remote teams. The body of evidence that people are as productive, if not more, working remotely has been building for a while. The general fall-back for those who are still resistant to the idea is usually the idea of “water cooler conversation.” This is shorthand for the informal communication and idea sharing that occurs among people who are physically co-located. This is a valid concern, but it ignores a few realities, which I will discuss via anecdotes:
I had a conversation with a friend who works for the federal government. As the pandemic was ramping up, his supervisor asked him about the viability of working from home. All of the tools he uses to do his job are online, hosted services. He essentially works remotely from the desk in his organization’s building. He said as much to his supervisor and began working from home with no effect on his daily work, aside from losing his daily commute.
Another recounted a supervisor who insisted everyone work at the office so that he could ensure they were working and being productive. The underlying fallacy of this is that physical proximity only allows one to measure the amount of time a person is sitting in the chair. Walking the floor and glancing over the shoulder doesn’t produce any sample valid enough to assess productivity. That comes from schedules, communication, and deliverables. All of these can be measured equally well remotely as they can be on-premises. If the primary measure of productivity is time in the chair, then there is no actionable measure of productivity.
Yet another friend told me how he feels that meetings have gotten more productive since everyone has gone remote. He attributed this primarily to the increased discipline needed to do a remote meeting. The incidence of “pop-up meetings” has greatly reduced as it’s harder to “just pull in” people who are remote, so more meetings are explicitly scheduled. This gives participants time to actually prepare for the meeting and it’s also increased the incidence of having an agenda prepared for each meeting.
I have worked from home full-time for over three years and I’ve just presented some anecdotes supporting remote work. One could surmise that I am advocate for remote work for everyone, but that would be incorrect.
I know many people who, after this extended sample of remote work, are absolutely convinced it’s not for them. That’s totally fine. Each person has their own set of parameters that works for them. A policy that mandates “all remote” would be equally as wrong as one that mandates “all at the office.” It would also be as wrong-minded as the trend to fully open workspaces was.
Ultimately, organizations that can support remote workers have the opportunity to let staff self-select their preference of location. Offices can have sufficient additional space to ‘hotel’ remote staff who may need to come in for various reasons. The future presents an the chance to optimize office spaces for a reduced full-time presence.
But what about the water cooler?
As the title of this post suggests, corporate culture will adjust. There was a time before Zoom, a time before chat, a time before e-mail, faxes, phones, telegraphs. There was a time before commercial air travel and automobiles. In each case, as these innovations were introduced, society and corporate culture adjusted and re-organized around them. The changes were not always positive, such as the case of automobile-first cities, but the changes came anyway.
The culture of the future workplace, with increased emphasis on remote work, will adjust as well. This will happen with changes in human behavior and with advances in remote collaboration technology. Every bit of friction involved with remote collaboration today is a future market that will be addressed with better technology. With experience, people will instinctively develop best practices and adjust behavior and workflows accordingly.
Anyone truly concerned about the fate of water cooler conversations need only look to any teenager with Snapchat to see what a group that is proficient with collaboration technology can accomplish once they move past “storming” in to “norming” and “performing.”
Organizational culture was originally defined by Dr. Elliott Jaques as “the culture of the (organization) is its customary and traditional way of thinking and doing of things, which is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members, and which new members must learn, and at least partially accept, in order to be accepted into service.” Customs and traditions can change over time, sometimes precipitously. We are facing one such precipitous change now and many companies should probably cancel their water delivery service.
Header image (cubicles) credit: Larsinio at English Wikipedia / Public domain