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The Workplace

How To Connect With Your Colleagues

Could the rise of remote working spell the end of creativity and collaboration?

Are you a collaborator or a lone wolf? Do you feed off the energy of others or are you a predator who mercilessly pursues your own goals? Every workplace is a hotchpotch of personalities, and getting the most out of introverts and extroverts in the same space is a delicate art. As technology facilitates a greater ability to connect over vast distances, the need for a physical office space at all is even being brought into question.

Would it be better if every personality type could live in a bubble of their own making and not have to interact with others? Could this lead to greater efficiency or would we lose something vital in serendipitous interaction? Here, we investigate the complexities of finding a creative connection in the digital age.

Know thyself

A common misconception about personality types is that extroverts are just people you’d rather sit next to at a dinner party. Not so. You can have extroverted introverts and vice versa, so it has very little to do with how sociable someone is. What the terms extrovert and introvert refer to is how a person recharges their energy levels, and whether they need downtime in order to be productive. No one really exists at either extreme. As the psychiatrist Mr Carl Jung observed, “such a person would be in the lunatic asylum”. You’re most likely, then, to be what is called an ambivert, someone who combines aspects of both personality types.

Academic Ms Susan Cain observes in her book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking that there are powerful physiological differences between personality types, with introvert-dominant people even salivating more if you squeeze a lemon on their tongue. The fact that introverts are more sensitive to stimuli means that the modern open-plan office is an overwhelming space. A constant flow of colleagues and conversation can leave extroverts energised but introverts exhausted, whereas the office cubicles of old afforded some respite. US furniture company Steelcase recently tackled this issue with a range called Susan Cain Quiet Spaces, creating nooks sectioned off with frosted glass that serve as “recharging stations”.

How to brainswarm

The fabled water-cooler moment is often cited as an example of time-wasting, where colleagues catch up on Friday-night gossip or the latest Netflix series. Research published by Hewlett-Packard shows, however, that about 30 per cent of productive work takes place through so-called casual conversation. What’s more, the supposedly focused formal meeting can, in fact, be incredibly inefficient. Bain & Company consultancy found that one client spent 300,000 company-wide hours a year preparing for a single weekly meeting. That’s a massive brain-drain.

Internal meetings have become an excuse for inaction, often called when leaders are in doubt about what path to take. Brainstorming sessions have also been proven to be problematic, prioritising the loudest extroverts over more thoughtful introverts. Instead, companies such as PayPal have introduced “brainswarming” practices, where employees are set a single challenge that they can tackle privately, in their own style. Multiple solutions are then presented and voted upon, allowing diverse personality types and perspectives to contribute.

Engineering serendipity

The role of serendipitous encounters in spurring innovation cannot be overstated, and that’s one of the major reasons shared physical spaces remain so important in the digital age. By definition, serendipity and chance are difficult things to boil down to a set formula, but there are some ways you can help engineer these opportunities, ranging from communal events to hot-desking.

More can be done at an architectural and structural level, and we can look at the new breed of co-working spaces to understand the potential here. Second Home worked with architect SelgasCano on its east London headquarters, which make use of the principles of biophilia (that’s organically inspired design to you and me) as a way to create a space that flows and connects. Features include a roaming zone and hanging garden, as well as a giant 1.5-tonne meeting table in the main atrium that can be winched up to leave the floor free for mingling and events.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is also getting in on the act, its New York office designed to maximise a “collision co-efficient”. Portable technology means staff are untethered from their desks, while two grand staircases encourage circulation between “neighbourhood” zones. The office even has a dedicated app that allows seamless movement and communication, facilitating everything from booking meeting rooms to sharing updates. Plus, the BCG has, by way of its office design, increased what it calls the “bump factor”, reducing space requirements by 32 per cent per person. It really is best to go with the flow.

Digital bumps

As we’ve explored in previous workplace columns, people are increasingly turning to remote and flexible work. According to software brand Unify, in a study of 9,000 knowledge workers (those who make their living through ideas and knowledge rather than by manufacturing products), 52 per cent already operate in virtual teams and 69 per cent feel the office isn’t as important as it used to be. Xerox now offers virtual gatherings, such as Christmas parties, Halloween events and book clubs for its remote workers. Startup FlexJobs even lays on virtual yoga sessions, belly-dancing classes and pub quizzes. Does technology really spell the beginning of the end for the office as we know it?

Probably not. Physical interaction and the serendipitous exchange of ideas are still fundamental to innovation. But what we are likely to see is technology becoming more important in facilitating and maximising these encounters, allowing both office-based and remote workers to interact in a far more seamless way. Instead of seeing digital activities (an email or a Slack or Skype call) and physical activities (a meeting, coffee break or desk catch-up) as fundamentally different, we’ll start to move more fluidly across the technology barrier. Tech will also allow introverts and extroverts to work to their own strengths, making for more productive and less stressed-out employees.

LinkedIn and Facebook are already creating powerful products and services that allow better collaboration within office environments, meaning you can now quickly search for a colleague who speaks Japanese or has expertise in some arcane aspect of Russian tax law. Google recently worked with design agency Aruliden to create the Jamboard, which merges physical and digital notes, visual references, documents and participants. Rather than spelling the end of the physical, digital technology is likely to help us work in a more integrated but flexible way.

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