The shorter version of this article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on June 6, 2021.
To go back in or not to go back in? That, as we emerge from the biggest remote-working experiment in history, is very much the question. At a glance, it looks like a conundrum. Yet when you analyse what work is, and how it functions, it turns out there is a fundamental reason why office-based work will always have the edge over the remote-working option.
In any company — from a tech start-up to a bank to the physics institute where I work — the primary tool for solving problems is solitary focus. Whether you’re writing an email, doing a sketch, making a pizza or solving an equation, focus is the engine that drives it.
Some problems, though, are too complex for just one person to solve, so you need a team. A fair definition of an organisation, in fact, is a team of people who achieve more together than they would independently. If focus is the engine of an organisation, its rudder is interaction. It is interaction with others that adjusts our direction of focus and gets us unstuck by providing a skill or insight we lack. This is the magic ingredient that makes an organisation more than the sum of its parts.
The tricky bit, though, is knowing how to combine focus and interaction. At one extreme, there is the open plan office, which invites us to do both at the same time. But this is vulnerable to the so-called greedy algorithm, in which everyone makes the locally optimal decision. In other words, every .worker interacts whenever and with whomever they want, regardless of the effects.
At the other extreme is scheduled alternation between focus and interaction: for example, working in the office one day and from home the next. Yet this is also flawed, since we don’t know in advance when the need for interaction will arise. Because most organisations are making something new or operating in an uncertain environment, we can hardly predict what we will focus on, much less when we will want to interact.
The ideal is to interact with others as the need arises, but only in proportion to how much we need them and how open they are to being interacted with. Here the mathematical analogy is known as the Stable Marriage Problem, extensions of which earned a Nobel prize in economics in 2012. It looks at how to find the best pairings of couples, so there are no two people who both prefer each other over their current spouses. When it comes to interacting at work, the variables are how much someone wants to interact at any moment, and who is open to interacting with them — but the principle is the same.
To assess these variables, and judge when others can help you and when they could use your help, we rely on cues that range from the obvious, such as when a colleague closes their door, to the subtle, such as how quick they are to make eye contact. One of the greatest unsung human skills is our ability to tell if those around us are aligned with our intentions. But whether clear or nuanced, the cues for this are invariably situational. You cannot read the room unless you’re in it.
Technology will struggle to help us do this better than 300 million years of evolution. The three tech giants developing remote-presence technology — Amazon, Google and Microsoft — recently announced that, notwithstanding their efforts in this field, they expect their employees to return to the office. When the baker won’t touch his bread, stick to the biscuits.
This is why the best companies will continue to show up to work. It is the only way to read the room and optimally align our interactions. That gives companies agility, so they can adapt quickly to new demands and shifting environments. It also makes them more efficient, since everyone is pulling in the same direction. Finally, it reduces the need for meetings. Most meetings are really just a miniature version of the scheduled alternation described above. That explains why they’re so boring. They are out of sync with the real-time needs for interaction of those who attend them.
At the London Institute, we specialise in theory, but here’s a summary of practical tips. First, ensure that your workplace has spaces for focus and spaces for interaction. Most organisations fall glaringly short on one front or the other, so the correction they need to make should be clear. Second, find a space for deep focus and let your engine run full throttle. This may sound obvious, but people forget that, to get things done, they need to sit down and concentrate. Third, when you need a break, step away from your desk to find out what others are working on and tell them what you’re up to. It’s surprising how often a colleague can inspire you to adjust course or offer an unexpected contribution.
We recently moved into the Royal Institution, which has been practicing many of these principles for more than two centuries. It has laboratories for focused work; a lecture theatre for talking about it; a Writing Room for solitary study; a Conversation Room for interaction; and so on. The handful of researchers associated with this townhouse in Mayfair have earned more Nobel prizes than most countries, so being more than the sum of its parts is its stock-in-trade.
The Royal Institution also provides a nice example — which dates back to 1821, precisely 200 years ago — of how serendipity can strike when you work in the presence of colleagues. For it was here that a young laboratory assistant named Michael Faraday chanced to overhear his boss Sir Humphry Davy talking about the mysterious circular effects of electromagnetism. Faraday thought: I can do something with this. After this unplanned interaction, he engaged in solitary focus to invent the electric motor, a transformative invention that has shaped the modern world.
Would Faraday have managed it, if he had been working from home? Would he, heck.