COVID-19 has caused a massive shift to online work. A survey by Gartner HR in March suggests 88 per cent of organisations encouraged their employees to work from home at the outset of the pandemic. Moreover, it has been suggested - and we are already seeing this - that this movement to work-from-home will be a permanent one. The Centre for the Future of Work recently published a study suggesting a significant proportion of Australians - particularly office workers - could do their jobs at home.
While many employees will welcome this change, it raises questions about the quality of their output. A study I co-authored with researchers at Kyoto University and Monash University, published in Games and Economic Behavior last year, analysed how people in teams work together. It found that informal interactions allow collaboration - intrinsic to human nature - to flourish. In a world of Zoom meetings and even more emails than usual, how can these interactions occur? And why are they so important in the first place?
The importance of informality
Workers chatting over coffee or in the lunchroom can talk about many things, but invariably their conversations will come back to work. In these unplanned chats, workers can share their ideas and intentions, often in a way that could not be achieved under a directive from higher management. Rather than just idle time, these social interactions can have positive benefits for firms. Ideas can be bounced around without fear of embarrassment. Sparks can fly. After all, many people still meet their partners at work. This is important because it allows workers to be innovative. In turn, this can enhance firms' productivity, and therefore, profitability.
The benefits of informal meetings were realised by Alfred P. Sloan, the famous president, chairman and chief executive of General Motors, who established the "General Technical Committee". The committee had no formal agenda, but it provided an opportunity for engineers from different parts of the company to come together to exchange information and iron out differences. This had the added advantage of building trust between team members - an upshot of familiarity. The benefits of informal interactions continue to be recognised by tech companies: their hangout areas, table tennis tables and campus environments are all designed to facilitate casual interactions that can lead to more effective collaboration, and therefore, innovation.
The 'two-pizza' rule
In the work-from-home world, how can firms facilitate these informal connections? Research shows that small teams are more conducive to informal sharing of intentions and collaboration, whether they meet in-person or online. This accords with the famed "two- pizza" team rule at Amazon: a team should be no larger than one that can be fed by two pizzas. Also, to be most effective, communication should involve the whole team.
Because familiarity breeds trust, established teams are likely to be able to continue to communicate effectively with one another with a shift to online work. Conversely, new teams may struggle, as it is hard to build rapport in the online world. Informal gatherings - preferably of a large proportion of the team - help build the foundation for collaboration; something that is difficult when interactions need to be scheduled and have a stated purpose. So, if a new team is needed, an existing (successful) working relationship should be at its core.
Additionally, managers need to create fora in which informal interactions can thrive. Regular coffee catch-up times is one option. Social groups - like book and movie clubs - is another way. To foster unfettered discussion, senior managers should exclude themselves from these social meets.
As travel restrictions and social distancing requirements are lifted, what will businesses do? Many will be tempted to keep working - at least partially - online. Some of the cost savings, like reduced office space, are obvious. But such moves should be made with caution. Online work creates barriers to informal interactions. Particularly for firms for which innovation is important, the traditional workplace, with its lunchroom and coffee breaks, has many advantages.
- Andrew Wait is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney's School of Economics.