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Returning to the Office vs. Working Remote: Is Innovation Impacted?

Last year, I wrote a blog post about Innovation Serendipity, which I described as innovation arising as a result of making a fortunate discovery "by accident." In that article, I raised questions of if, and how, social distancing was stifling innovation and discussed things we might do to enhance the likelihood of innovation when we are all remote.

Since then, several of our Innovation+Talks podcast episodes have either directly or indirectly also touched on the subject. One of my favorites was my Pandemic Changes Innovation discussion with Dr. Sven Schimpf, who shared his views on innovation serendipity and how there will be a place for creative spaces and meeting places in the future. Sven’s views are backed by his research.

Another was my Idea and Collaboration conversation with Chris Colbert who spoke to the importance the human being in innovation. 

Listen to Innovation+Talks Podcast

I’ve also written about working remote, working virtually and how we can best use what we learned during the pandemic when we come back to the office.

Now that we are on the precipice of coming back to the office, various perspectives are emerging and, in some cases, lines are being drawn in the sand by both employers and employees. Some companies are asking people to come back to the office, some companies are “forcing” people back into the office, and other companies are embracing the opposite approach and stating that work from home is ok to continue and that you as the employee can choose. Many are experiment with a hybrid model of some days in the office and some days remote. Some companies are seeing employee turnover as a result of their decision to require people back in the office and some are not.

Some employees can’t wait to back, and others are saying, “no way.”

It gets down to the core culture and mission of the organization and the buy-in to that culture and mission from the employees.

It is easy to find yourself on one side of this line in the sand about where people need to be when working and conclude that the company you are working for is making a terrible decision because they are on the other side of that line. It might not be a fit for you but that does not mean that it is necessarily a bad decision for the company. Do not assume employee turnover is rampant in companies who are requiring people to be back into the office. It is not that black and white. It is very dependent on the degree to which the company and the employee are aligned with respect to work style and policy.

Effective Innovation

Back to the issue of effective innovation. Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in on his view of it. He said, "Innovation isn't always a planned activity." Cook adds, "It's bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea that you just had. And you really need to be together to do that."

On the other side, we see some leaders taking the opposite approach. Some of these are suspect in my mind. I raise my eyebrows when CEOs of companies who make their revenue with products and services for remote workers state unequivocally that innovation suffers if people are required to be in an office together. I look for more balanced views.

The New York Times weighed in with, Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It. It is interesting to read about Jacqueline Reses who, in 2013 when an executive at Yahoo, wrote, “It is critical that we are all present in our offices,” and “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.” Today, as CEO of an investment firm, she holds a more tempered view. The article states “She still believes that collaboration can benefit from being together in person, but over the last year, people found new, better ways to work.”

What is most interesting in the NY Times article is the reference to the work of Ethan S. Bernstein of the Harvard Business School. Mr. Bernstein published an article about open office spaces. He points out some disadvantages of open-office design and explores how the “accidental collisions” that such a design encourages can be counterproductive. He discusses virtual and physical workspaces.


His conclusion: “A single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less. The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times.”

Ethan S. Bernstein, Harvard Business School


What can we conclude?

Cleary, there are different strategies. Structured, guided innovation with predefined meeting spaces and places; and unstructured, ad-hoc innovation based, as Dr. Schimpf describes, on personal contact and trust building in a personal, non-guided way.

A few questions to be answered when selecting your strategy are:

  • Where does inspiration come from?
  • How do people get to know things they would not ordinarily get to know?
  • Is personal contact important?
  • Is innovation serendipity important?
  • Can serendipity be structured?
  • Does one approach work better than the other for innovation on the fringe, for potentially new to the world or breakthrough innovation?

I certainly can’t find fault with any of Mr. Bernstein’s work, and I respect those who are going to take the approach that innovation will be successful even though people are not co-located. Yet I appreciate and admire executives like Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, and James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, who are taking a strong position of the value of being together in the office to enable strong innovation.

In Apple’s case, Tim Cook is requiring three days in the office for most employees and five days in the office for some teams. The Verge reported  pushback from some Apple employees in a letter written to their employer. It appears to be 80 employees, a small percentage. I don’t know what the majority of employees think. The Verge further reported that their request was essentially denied. Deirdre O’Brien, Senior Vice President of Retail and People at Apple, said “If we take a moment to reflect on our unbelievable product launches this past year, the products and the launch execution were built upon the base of years of work that we did when we were all together in-person.”

People have told me that has gone all remote. Well, they haven’t. In fact, their policy is similar to Apple’s in that his has multiple levels based on the nature of the work.

Facebook is a company who has stated its intent is to go 100% remote. But not this year. It will phase that way over the next decade. It was as much a marketing statement as a policy statement made by Mark Zuckerberg; a chance to gain a lot of media attention and to state publicly that his is a very different, forward-looking company. Who knows? Maybe Facebook, or Apple or any company might even change their decisions and policies during the next ten years.

As I wrote earlier and will restate again, it gets down to the core culture and mission of the organization and the buy-in to that culture and mission from the employees. CEOs are being clear about the culture and the mission. And their employees are making their own decisions and choosing where they will work in the future as a result.

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