Beyond the water cooler: how we need to collaborate in a digital world

By Simon Webster

A lot has been said about how people can be more productive when they work from home. But while sitting alone at the kitchen table might be good for focus, how does it affect collaboration? What’s happened to all the brainstorming, networking and day-to-day mentoring that were integral to traditional office life?

Frederik Anseel, professor of management and senior deputy dean (research and enterprise) at the UNSW Business School, says we can learn a lot from Microsoft.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Microsoft, like most businesses around the world, had to adjust quickly to having an entirely remote workforce. But unlike many organisations, Microsoft could monitor just about every keystroke its employees made. With MIT and Berkeley, it produced a study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, that shines a fascinating light on communication and collaboration among remote workers.

“It showed very clearly that through remote work we actually become very efficient working within our teams,” Anseel says. “But the communication lines and networks with others outside the team dry up.”

Microsoft’s workers communicated more asynchronously (that is, not at the same time as each other). They also communicated intensively but in isolated groups, the report found. And those groups became static, without new blood to invigorate them.

A key factor missing was random encounters. And that turns out to be a big deal.

“Where innovation comes from, where the new ideas and new information come from, is from the links with other teams that we normally don’t work a lot with,” Anseel says. “Maybe when we meet on the stairway or a coffee bar … sort of serendipitous encounters.”

“These informal, unplanned meetings, they have dropped away when people work remotely. And that is very detrimental to collaboration in companies.”

Knowledge transfer

Of course, working from home isn’t an entirely new concept. Julia Richardson, a professor of human resource management and head of the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University, was studying remote workers in a multinational organisation more than a decade ago.

The business in question was encouraging remote work to save on office space rather than to reduce transmission of disease. But outcomes were similar: the lack of random encounters really hurt communication and collaboration.

“We know that they are super important for things like career opportunities, networking within your organisation and knowledge-transfer,” Richardson says.

“Now it’s somewhat better because you’ve got these platforms like Slack, Jabber and so on, where it’s very easy to do that instant messaging rather than emailing, which can be quite cumbersome. But even so, that still doesn’t replace that kind of ad-hoc conversations where you just bump into somebody.”

This lack of spontaneity is particularly challenging for new employees, Richardson says. “Some organisations are encouraging new employees to start working in the office, so at least they establish some connections before they allow them to work from home. It’s difficult to get them included in the organisational culture if they haven’t met anybody face to face. They’re not creating appropriate or robust networks, and they don’t feel a sense of belonging quite as quickly.”

In a remote workforce, some collaborative processes need to become more formalised while others benefit from an element of informality, Richardson explains. Frequent, regular time slots need to be scheduled for mentorships, for example, to make up for senior and junior employees not having so many casual day-to-day interactions.

Video calls, on the other hand, can be made more personal: employers might insist that everybody has their camera on so there’s always that visual connection. If it’s a long meeting, they might replicate a canteen break by getting everyone to go and get a cup of coffee, then come back to their screens for an informal chat. “They might sound like small things but they can have a very positive impact,” Richardson says.

However, digital encounters will always have their limitations, she says. “My personal opinion is that nothing quite replaces that face to face.”

Hybrid collaboration model

Anseel says the pandemic has shown how remote working can be effective but also its downsides, such as disconnection. “What businesses and government will need to do is think: How can we orchestrate meetings with other teams that people would normally not meet when they do their jobs?

“It’s important that they build an informal network with people that are not key or core to the task that would have useful information. It’s sort of organising serendipity. So you need to orchestrate informal meetings, creating the social capital, networks where people learn information that they would normally not learn.

“That is a challenge for the future of office work: to make sure that we create this sort of environment where people can meet each other.”

Like Richardson, Anseel believes the physical office still has a role to play. “Most businesses will go to a hybrid model because to collaborate we will still need to have some in-person face-to-face time,” he says. “Our brains are wired in a way that we need to build personal connections with each other.”

Perhaps one day, home will be the place for focused work and offices will essentially be meeting places, redesigned for collaboration within teams, between teams and with external stakeholders, Anseel says.

“What we need to do is nurture what we’ve learned here: how productive people can be if they have flexibility, if they can do focused, concentrated work from home. We need to keep the best things of that and make sure that we can reconcile it with the sort of rich, personal environment where people can exchange information.”