Cultivate diverse connections to increase creativity
The last year has been a huge experiment in virtual working. A year on, organisations are now in a better position to understand the impact of large-scale virtual working on productivity, engagement, and well-being. So, what have we learnt? And, what do we need to consider in the next shift towards hybrid working?
The 2021 Work Trend Index report by Microsoft highlighted a number of findings:
- – 73% of employees wanted flexible, remote work options to continue
- – 63% of employees wanted more in-person work or collaboration post-pandemic
- – 39% of people felt exhausted. Self-assessed productivity remained the same or higher, with time in virtual meetings doubling from the previous year, and after-hours chats increasing 42%.
- – Our networks and connections shrunk. People narrowed their interactions to their immediate teams, letting connections with people in their broader professional networks lapse.
There are many potential upsides of working virtually (e.g. no commute, more flexible hours, the chance to spend more time with family, volunteer or do other things) and people want it to continue to a degree. However, there is a need to combat digital exhaustion and be deliberate about connecting with people outside narrowed circles as a result of virtual working.
Technology can help us connect and interact no matter where we are or what time of day it is, but it can be difficult to switch off. To combat this, some organisations have implemented policies to help employees retain work-life balance and make time for focused individual work, such as asking people not to send emails after the close of the business day, or ring fencing a day or morning a week where no one can schedule internal meetings.
The trend towards smaller, more siloed networks is worrying. Working virtually has meant that many of the informal day-to-day interactions people have in the workplace have dropped away. Interactions such as conversations with colleagues in adjacent business areas, whilst waiting for the lift or getting a coffee help to share information and connect ideas in an organic way. This is critical to enabling creativity and innovation as well as building relationships and networks. One of the factors that fuelled tech innovation in Silicon Valley was the existence of spaces that helped people easily and frequently connect and share ideas2. Smaller networks can lead to less creative problem solving, a lack of cross-functional collaboration, disconnection from the overall goals of organisations, and less innovation.
Whether people continue to work virtually or move towards hybrid working, there is a need to be more intentional about maintaining connections with people outside our immediate teams. Antidotes to this include setting up “coffee roulettes” where people within a function are randomly paired up to chat and network. Another approach is to set aside time each week to call a colleague in a different team or business function to talk about a shared work challenge.
Working virtually presents opportunities as well as challenges. Opportunities include the ability to acquire talent from anywhere in the world, democratise access to learning and development, and diversify and retain employee talent by providing flexible working arrangements. However, to maintain individual well-being, productivity and increase organisational performance, leaders and organisations must also help people maintain a work-life balance and stay connected with people outside their immediate teams. These are lessons we should ensure we apply in the next phase of hybrid working.
Microsoft (2021). 2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report. The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?
Syed, M (2019). Rebel Ideas. London: John Murray.