4th May 2021
Benefits of Remote Working
Why the retreat from the office might prove instrumental in raising both the productivity, creativity and quality of council workers writes Dr Simon Willson
We have quickly come to appreciate that working remotely can increase people’s feelings of loneliness and isolation resulting in a negative impact on personal wellbeing. What has been less often discussed in recent months is the degree to which the negative impacts are due to Covid-19, rather than to remote working itself, and also the possible benefits of working in isolation.
Certainly, talking to people over the past few months in preparation for a Solace webinar on 20 April, I have been struck by the number of positive comments about how remote working has enabled people to get their ‘heads down’ and to work uninterrupted on tasks and issues that need a higher level of concentration, thought and creativity. Similarly, some people have reported that, on balance, they have been more productive since working from home.
This led me to think about why we so easily assume, and accept, that both team and collaborative working are the right ways to organise the world of work. Also, to ask why the desire to locate people in open plan office spaces has become the accepted norm in many organisations.
Today it is hard to find a single organisation that hasn’t organised its workforce into some form of team structure in the belief “that none of us is as smart as all of us” (Warren Bennis) and that the best ideas and achievements are the result of collectivism: “innovation – the heart of the knowledge economy – is fundamentally social” (Gladwell).
As a result of the high value placed on team working, the idea of collaboration and co-operative learning has become synonymous with today’s world of work. Furthermore, we have even come to assume that group thinking, as typified by such techniques as thought showering, is the most advantageous way for generating new ideas and solving problems. However, since 1963 we have also known that people working alone produce more quality ideas than do groups, and many subsequent studies have shown that as group sizes increase fewer and poorer ideas are generated.
We also know that groups are susceptible to following leaders who initiate action without question – the so called getting on ‘the Bus to Abilene’. Similarly, we know that working in groups creates a sub–conscious desire to conform which often results in making wrong or poor judgements and negatively impacts on the group’s overall performance levels.
The growth of the web and social media have continued to add to the illusion that, by working together, more can be achieved in ways that are better, faster and cheaper. And the rush to Zoom only suggests we remain firmly fixed to the idea that, even in isolation, we must work together in order to produce the best results.
Currently, over 70% of employees work in open plan spaces and the allocation of space per worker has dropped from 500 to 200 square feet. However, a study carried out in 1987 – ‘The Coding War Games’– has shown (along with a number of other studies) that open plan offices reduce productivity, impair memory, lead to higher rates of sickness and turnover, and that they also create over–stimulation resulting in increased aggression, selfishness and a reduction in trust amongst co-workers.
Indeed, contrary to the ‘evidence’ that supports the idea that team working is the best way forward, there is another body of evidence that suggests the most effective work is not done in groups, but in isolation and with little collaboration.
There are several related reasons for this. Firstly, by working in solitude, you are more likely to choose to focus on the task in hand and not allow yourself to become interrupted or distracted. Secondly, you are less likely to multitask which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50%. Thirdly, by working independently, what psychologists call ‘practicing alone,’ you are more likely to acquire a new skill.
This is why musicians, chess champions, sports people (even team players), engage in what is described as ‘deliberate practice’ whereby they dedicate many hours to working alone on their discipline to achieve a higher level of performance – “When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress and revise accordingly.” (Anders Ericsson). Such practicing demands high levels of concentration, deep motivation (often self-generated) and an application to those things that are considered the most challenging and important to the individual.
Looked at from this standpoint, we can consider how the Covid-19 enforced isolation might turn out to be a real positive for many organisations. Furthermore, working independently and in isolation can often also be the catalyst for genuine innovation. When we examine the major advances in the arts, science and technology many of them have been achieved by women and men working alone, often over many months, sometimes years to perfect their art works, theories and products. As Einstein famously said “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut for tandem or teamwork…for well I know in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.” Such words might have also been spoken by Florence Nightingale, Martha Graham or Stephen Wozniak, to name but a few other high achievers.
We may conclude, therefore, that creativity, innovation and increased quality is best served by independent thought and solitude. It would appear that giving workers privacy and autonomy to work alone has many benefits for the individual and the organisation, yet we seem to want to continue to do the exact opposite. Examining the changes brought about by covid -19, however, gives us an opportunity to re-address that balance in a healthy, knowing way.
In reality, of course, most organisations need to be able to balance both independent and group working, as well as to understand when in-person collaboration would be most advantageous. People are social animals – we know that face to face working builds higher levels of trust than on–line interactions, and large populations in towns and cities are more innovative than smaller populations in rural areas. But, we only need to think of Rodgers and Hammerstein, French and Saunders or indeed Womack and Jobs, to know the world would have been a poorer place without such collaboration, though being mindful that their ‘team output’ was founded in many hours of working alone, perfecting skills and ideas.
This challenging time for workers, therefore, gives us a real opportunity to rethink why we place such a high value on the need for team working and group collaboration and, inversely, why we are so wary of allowing people to work alone. Potentially, there is much to be gained by blending passive forms of collaboration more productively with face to face activities; and by recognising how working from home might create an ideal environment for completing tasks that require more focus, creativity and skill. As the psychologist Adrian Furnham writes: “if you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
Dr Simon Willson is a Solace Associate and freelance OD consultant, Coach and Mentor.