87% of employees say the office is important for collaborating with team members and building relationships. Here's why.
Employers and employees agree on that.
A 2014 Stanford study found that those who work in a collaborative rather than individual setting are 50% more effective at completing tasks, boosting their intrinsic motivation, and being more engaged with their work.
But what defines a collaborative setting?
Is a Zoom call or Slack huddle as effective as an in-person meeting or unplanned encounter in the break room?
It’s a question Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff surfaced to employees in December, 2022.
“New employees (hired during the pandemic in 2021 & 2022) are especially facing much lower productivity,” he wrote in a Slack message to employees. “Is this a reflection of our office policy? Are we not building tribal knowledge with new employees without an office culture?”
“Are we not building tribal knowledge with new employees without an office culture?” — Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO
Benioff isn’t the first person to ask these questions. But his concerns are telling — Benioff was among the earliest and most prominent advocates of remote work following the pandemic.
Research suggests in-person yields better results
MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab spent hundreds of hours tracking performance drivers across industries by collecting data from electronic badges that covered everything from tone of voice to body language.
The results showed that the most valuable communication is done in-person and that roughly 35 percent of the variation in a given team’s performance was explained by the number of times team members spoke face-to-face.
The more often colleagues met, the better they performed.
Face-to-face requests are 34x more effective than e-mailed ones. — Washington Post
Employees realize this
Employees want autonomy over where they work. But many choose to come to the office specifically to collaborate.
87% of employees say the office is essential for collaborating with team members and building relationships — their top-rated need for the office.
So what is it about the physical workplace that nurtures collaboration in a way that a virtual experience cannot?
Why in-person collaboration is important
Feeding off others’ energy
Harvard Business Review published a study in 2017, Want to Be More Productive? Sit Next to Someone Who Is, showing that who we sit near impacts how we work.
The same can likely be said for how we collaborate. If you’re in a room with energetic people, it’s hard not to feed off of that energy.
That type of experience is yet to be replicated in a virtual setting.
Virtual settings are more contrived. You have to open up an app, set up your camera, test your mic, and make sure your setting is conducive for a call, only to then talk to people who you see in tiny boxes.
Less convoluted communication
Can you see my screen?
Hey, you’re on mute.
Oh no, I think Aaron froze.
We can all relate to these experiences. They’re funny, endearing, but also a roadblock to seamless collaboration.
Bouncing ideas off one another is challenging when glitches and latency issues loom overhead.
And while talking all at once can feel awkward anytime, it’s far easier to maneuver your way out of a cacophony of conversations when everyone is in the same room.
When it comes to real-time collaboration, tech still has a ways to go.
The unplanned collab session
A virtual collaboration is often the result of pre-planning. Set up your camera, find your headphones, quiet the baby and go.
But moments of innovation often happen during unstructured times of the day, including in hallways, elevators, and stairwells.
And sometimes the best ideas from a brainstorming session happen after the meeting, in those inevitable ad-hoc conversations folks have as they shuffle out of the door.
Virtually, when the Zoom meeting ends, there are no lingering conversations. The app is closed, and you’re off to your next thing, siloed from others.
More trust and relationship building
A study conducted by the University of Munster and the TU Dortmund University looked at what factors predict higher levels of trust in both face-to-face and virtual teams and how high-trust teams interact differently than low-trust teams.
The study revealed that while it’s not impossible to build trust with colleagues virtually, it is more challenging. Virtual teams need to clearly verbalize their feelings and be incredibly articulate about mistakes and feedback, which may not come easily to some.
While it’s not impossible to build trust with colleagues virtually, it is more challenging.
Eye contact is another factor to consider.
In a paper titled “When Eyes Touch”, James Laing of the University of York, explains, “When we make eye contact, we experience a form of interpersonal connection that plays a central role in human social life, communication, and interpersonal understanding.”
Video conferencing has made it possible to make eye contact while talking, regardless of distance. But few would argue that looking at someone through a screen is on the same level as talking with them in person.
The challenge: an office isn’t enough
The workplace has an opportunity to fill the gap in collaboration left by remote work. But an office space alone doesn’t create an ideal collaborative experience. We have to create spaces that nurture face-to-face experiences.
“There are countless people who say they’re fine with going into the office, but they wind up being on Zoom calls all day,” says Corrine Murray, Founder of Agate. “How do we allow people to actually be together when they are physically together?”
Intentionality is a common theme we hear among workplace leaders grappling with this challenge.
So much so, that GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, anticipates teams will be created specifically to optimize a company’s intentional in-person interactions.
“There's just something special about intentionally being together – building culture, building rapport, breaking bread together. It matters,” Murph says. “And spaces can be hallowed ground for bringing people together for really, really vital moments that are impactful for them in their personal life as well as catalyzing a lot of great work after they go their separate ways.”