When Yahoo banned working from home in 2013, the reason was one often cited in corporate America: Being in the office is essential for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.
“It is critical that we are all present in our offices,” wrote Jacqueline Reses, then a Yahoo executive, in a staff memo. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”
Today, Ms. Reses, now chief executive of Post House Capital, an investment firm, has a different view. “Would I write that memo differently now?” she said. “Oh yeah.” She still believes that collaboration can benefit from being together in person, but over the last year, people found new, better ways to work.
As the pandemic winds down in the United States, however, many bosses are sounding a note similar to Ms. Reses’ in 2013. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” said Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.” Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”
Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.
“That’s led to a lot of the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation — because that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many,” said Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, the real estate marketplace.
“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”
He and others suggested reimagining the office entirely — as somewhere people go to every so often, to meet or socialize, while daily work is done remotely. At Zillow, nearly all employees will be remote or come in only once in a while. Several times a year, teams will go to small offices set up for gathering.
“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, who teaches at Harvard Business School and studies the topic. “But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever.”
“All of this suggests to me that the idea of random serendipity being productive is more fairy tale than reality,” he said.
The notion that spontaneous interactions in the office would spur creative thinking was a driving force behind one of the first open-plan office buildings, the Johnson Wax headquarters, designed in the 1930s by Frank Lloyd Wright. By the 1990s, Silicon Valley companies began offering snack stations and on-site haircuts to foster impromptu gatherings. Companies began paying disproportionately more to those who were at the office more than 40 hours a week.
Yet Professor Bernstein found that contemporary open offices led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions. People didn’t find it helpful to have so many spontaneous conversations, so they wore headphones and avoided one another.
At the same time, technology — like Zoom, Slack and Google Docs — has made idea generation as effective online, researchers said. Judith Olson, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Irvine, has studied the effect of distance on teamwork for three decades. Distance matters much less now, she said: “Because of the technology these days, we’re actually inching closer and closer to replicating the office.”
Creative work can be done by leaving video chat on while working so people can share thoughts as they arise or working at the same time on a Google Doc. Also, writing down ideas and notes from conversations, so others can refer to them and weigh in.
In-office work is essential for some innovation jobs, like those that involve physical objects, and beneficial for some people, like newly hired employees and those seeking mentors. Yet some creative professionals, like architects and designers, have been surprised at how effective remote work has been during the pandemic, while scientists and academic researchers have long worked on projects with colleagues in other places.
Requiring people to be in the office can drive out innovation, some researchers and executives said, because for many people, in-person office jobs were never a great fit. They include many women, racial minorities and people with caregiving responsibilities or disabilities. Also, people who are shy; who need to live far from the office; who are productive at odd hours; or who were excluded from golf games or happy hours.
Women, for example, start being penalized in pay and promotions as soon as they become mothers, and gender pay gaps are largest in the jobs that are least flexible about when and where work gets done, the economist Claudia Goldin has found. Women are also more likely to be interrupted or not given credit for their ideas in in-person meetings, or penalized for being assertive.
Office workers who are not white deal with discrimination. In a survey by Future Forum, a research group at Slack, Black office workers were more likely than white workers to say they preferred remote work, because it reduced the need for code-switching (changing behavior in different contexts) and increased their sense of belonging at work.
Remote work, though, can enable ideas to bubble up from people with different backgrounds. Online, people who are not comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting may feel more able to weigh in. Brainstorming sessions using apps like Slack can surface many more perspectives by including people who wouldn’t have been invited to a meeting, like interns or employees in other departments.
“When everyone has the same small box on the screen, everyone has an equal seat at the table, literally,” said Barbara Messing, employee experience officer at Roblox, the online gaming company, which is staying remote two days a week, and letting people work wherever they want two months a year.
Also, remote companies can hire from a more diverse group — people for whom long hours in the office wouldn’t have worked, or people who live elsewhere: “If you only recruit within a 20-mile distance, you ain’t getting diversity,” said John Sullivan, an H.R. consultant.
There are risks in allowing some remote work — if some people are in the office, those who aren’t may be penalized. There are also benefits for creativity to seeing colleagues in person; brainstorming ideas and collaborating on projects requires trust, rooted in personal relationships.
That’s why some experts have suggested a new idea for the office: not as a headquarters people go to daily or weekly, but as a place people go sometimes, for group hangouts. Companies like Ford, Salesforce and Zillow are doing versions of this, and reconfiguring their offices with more hangout spaces and fewer rows of desks.
“One of our big fears is that if we don’t get this right, we create this two-tier employee reality — who’s in the room, who’s not, who’s playing the politics, who’s not,” Mr. Spaulding at Zillow said. “We believe humans want to connect and collaborate. But do you need to do that five days a week, or can you do that once every three months?”