Just after 2022 ended and the new year marched onward, major corporate employers like Amazon, Apple, and Google seemingly had a New Year’s Resolution ready: get workers back in the office. It wasn’t just Big Tech firms either. Other corporate giants like JP Morgan Chase, Citi Bank, and GM announced new policies on returning to the office in 2023. Most of them tightened up their more flexible mandates and asked employees to be in the office more days out of the week. One of the most popular explanations from companies about why they want employees in the office more often revolves around the need for collaboration. Industry leaders across a variety of sectors eulogize collaboration for its ability to lead to innovation. Without it, companies cannot be as productive nor competitive. Many companies argue that collaboration cannot be as effective in a virtual setting, which is the reason behind bringing staff back to the office.
The mandates have not exactly gone over well with a lot of employees of these companies. In February, just days after Amazon announced it would begin requiring corporate employees to return to the office at least three days a week starting in May, thousands of employees joined a Slack channel to protest the new policy and signed a petition demanding it be changed. The pushback came on the heels of Disney announcing its own return-to-office plan mandating some employees return to the office four days a week. While employers and employees battle it out over back-to-office to increase collaboration, the bigger issue is how collaboration is measured. Can innovation happen without in-person collaboration?
Stop, collaborate, and listen
Every time companies begin to nail down back-to-work plans, collaboration has been widely cited by corporate executives, real estate industry leaders, and even city leaders, all of whom have a vested interest in seeing offices full again. “We make product, and you have to hold product,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said last fall when discussing his company’s return-to-office policy requiring employees to be in the office three days a week. “You collaborate with one another because we believe that one plus one equals three. So that takes the serendipity of running into people, and bouncing ideas off, and caring enough to advance your idea through somebody else because you know that’ll make it a bigger idea.”
The importance of collaboration in business and research settings has been studied extensively over the last several years. In one such study from 2008, Benjamin Jones, a strategy professor at Northwestern University, found collaboration is growing in importance and will continue to do so because of how individuals’ knowledge base is becoming more and more specialized. In explaining what that means, Jones pointed to the Wright Brothers, the famous duo that designed and successfully flew an airplane just after the turn of the century. In comparison, today’s modern aircraft have dozens of different kinds of specialists working just on the engines, not to mention all the controls, hydraulics, and other components of the plane. “There’s more and more to know in the world, and you can only have so much in your head,” said Jones. “So the share of stuff you know as an individual is declining in any field.”
The example of the Wright Brothers applies to all kinds of industries and businesses. It illustrates how, in so many situations, the collaboration of a team can accomplish and innovate much more than someone going it alone. Another study from 2017 from the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Rob Cross, a professor at Babson College, looked at how leaders at companies where collaboration was a core value approached and incentivized collaboration. Researchers in the study of more than 1,100 companies found that purpose was the determining factor between productive and unproductive collaboration. Researchers defined purposeful collaboration as a healthy and productive form of collaboration that avoids an overload of collaboration, where workers feel overwhelmed by requests and productivity becomes inhibited. The outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia was one of the companies highlighted in the study as a high-performance organization that has been successful in part from its purposeful collaboration.
A measured approach
As the debate on collaboration has heated up, amid the many leaders extolling the importance of being together in the office, there’s another school of thought that all collaboration is created equal. Over the past ten years, the amount of collaboration in the workplace has exploded. The time workers spend on emails, instant messaging, phone calls, and video calls has jumped more than 50 percent over the last decade and now takes up more than two-thirds of most employees’ workweeks, according to the Harvard Business Review.
That’s a lot of collaboration, enough to actually bring down productivity, lead to burnout, and take a toll on mental and physical health. The increased demands can bring down efforts by companies to be more innovative. To combat this, some companies are using analytics to help employees deal with the volume of collaborative demands by things like cutting out unnecessary meetings, reducing email volume, and even implementing a timeout button that alerts others that they are taking a minute-long break.
Other organizations are looking at how to measure collaboration to see what works and what doesn’t and adjust accordingly. It’s especially important for companies as they look to find a compromise with employees on flexible and remote work models. Peter Smit is the founder of Collabogence, an analytics startup that uses workplace and people analytics to measure how much collaboration initiatives work. His company looks at granular data from different systems used within a company, such as activity logs in Microsoft Sharepoint. After removing individually identifying data, Smit’s company can look at different networks, see the number of actions between groups, analyze meeting frequency via the company calendar, and look at office attendance, among other things.
The amount of cross-functional collaboration may have been the hardest hit since the pandemic, which Microsoft found in a 2021 research study. In his work, Smit helps companies trying to regain cross-collaboration to better understand which teams work together more through their data so they can schedule them to come into the office simultaneously. Smit is currently working on gathering data from early in the pandemic and comparing it to a second set of data from later in the pandemic and up through 2022. This will provide a look at what companies got better at collaborating through the COVID-19 experience. “There’s never been such an opportunity to learn so much about the impact of changes in how people work,” Smit said.
With a lot at stake for the future of major corporate occupiers trying to lock into place their office plans, collaboration is being studied and analyzed more than ever. Just like a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t tend to work for office space design, it probably doesn’t apply to companies looking at how crucial in-person collaboration is to overall productivity and innovation. With all the tools at our disposal these days, workers can easily be distracted and eventually burned out by demands coming from several different directions. Instead of just using the term collaboration broadly, company leaders would be wise to consider taking a closer look at what kinds of collaboration are working and cut down on any overload that could reduce productivity. If cross-functional collaboration does turn out to be a contributing factor to innovation, we might see even more companies push to bring workers back to the office.