Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Innovation Mythbusting: a team needs to be co-located

Visualize in your mind a team of innovators.  Are they wearing glasses? Diverse in ethnicity in gender?  Clustered around a whiteboard?  Shooting nerf darts at each other?  Drinking Redbull together?  You probably don’t imagine the team distributed across the world in different timezones communicating in small groups at different times of the day over video conference and chat.  And who would?  The great innovative tech companies all ascribe to “innovation by proximity”, building giant ring shaped campuses and building their own bus services so that their employees can all work as closely together as possible.  Offices disappeared in the ‘90’s so that even the managers could be jammed first into cubicles, and then into completely open office spaces with not even the comforts of a cubicle.  If there’s one thing we know, it’s that if you want innovation, your team needs to be in one place.  Or does it?

I think it’s always good to challenge intuition and dive a little deeper.  Conventional wisdom does not insure understanding or success.  For instance, we have observed that things that fly have two wings that flap.  But that doesn’t mean we understand flight.  By breaking down the science, we can create flight without flapping wings (planes, balloons and helicopters for instance) which have great advantages.  Additionally, we understand that though it should be possible to fly, merely having those wings does not guarantee success as history has shown, and you can watch during the Flugtag every year.

If we break down the key aspects of colocating that is necessary for innovation, we can:
  1. Determine if these can be done without colocation (as there are advantages to teams that need to work globally)
  2. Insure that even co-located teams maximize these conditions and succeed

Low barrier to communication

Let’s start with the obvious one.  If you sit next to someone, it’s just easier to ask questions and get answers quickly.  However, in the modern workplace, this can break down.  In fact, the research shows that open offices are actually bad for office productivity.  To cope with the distractions and interruptions, many workers now find solace by putting on headphones, finding lounges to work in, or working from home longer hours.  Ironically, the lake of physical barriers is causing people to put up barriers to communication in a haphazard way.

The good news is that this can be solved by discussing and creating team norms for communication which is critical whether you are co-located or not.  Should there be team office hours?  Wouldn’t a scheduled two hours a day where everyone was available to chat be better so that the rest of the time could be used for focused work time?  Or maybe multiple 5 minute standups each day?  How about a chat/messaging protocol and separating out questions that need immediate answers vs ones that should be dealt with within a day or a week?  You may find that most items are more efficient for non-synchronized communications, allowing for those face-to-face communications to be richer and more useful.

Trust through informal time

We know that trust and psychological safety is an important aspect of teams.  Often this is built through the sharing of personal experiences and informal times.  It’s one of the main justifications for free on-site lunches and the expansion of the water cooler into full-blown coffee shops.  But simply being in the same office does not guarantee that those bonds will form.  Strong ties get formed based on what drinks people like and what time they tend to eat lunch.

Instead, why not set up recurring one on one time so that the whole team gets to know each other.  These are specifically meetings that do not have an agenda and are focused on people, not projects.  Is that weird?  This is what we do in our personal lives.  We spend the effort to set up networking events with people outside our team.  Shouldn’t we do it with our own teams?  Again, once you introduce this structure, it’s easy to do in non-co-located teams.  For local teams, it ensures that everyone is talking, and can also improve mental and physical wellness by making these into one on one walks.   


Out of sight, out of mind right?  We know that just seeing people makes us happy.  Studies have shown that we like people more that we just see a lot, even if we don’t talk to them or know their names.  Sitting with your team will create stronger team bonding.

While that’s true, it is also true that this doesn’t scale.  You can only sit next to so many people, and trying to balance it so that everyone sees the people they need to falls apart quickly, especially once you take into account people’s different schedules.  But the interesting thing is that empathy is built from seeing faces, even if they are just images of people’s faces.  A study has shown that radiologists were more meticulous in interpreting xrays when a photo of the patient was attached.  People build extremely strong emotional bonds to TV show characters without ever seeing them in person.

So what tweaks can we do to increase face time for all teams?  How about photos of faces attached to emails and chats?  Faces on documents?  Photos of faces posted on desks and in team areas?   Photos of faces on team websites, desktop backgrounds and screensavers?

Some of these suggestions may make us feel uncomfortable.  It may seem silly or too formal to put structure on these little tweaks.  But a little bit of deliberate intention can go a long way.  If these team dynamics are important to determine how we build our offices, where we can hire people, and whether we allow them to work remotely, then I think it’s worth spending some time designing team norms around these team dynamics.  In the long run, it’s much cheaper and far more effective.  And as our challenges become increasingly global, the ability to run innovative teams that are distributed geographically will only become more important.