The Future Of Collaboration Is About Looking Backwards

With more and more technology to help us work together, it turns out that a better solution for a future workplace might already exist—we just have to use our tech to get us there.

There is a fascinating thing happening in today’s world of work. Employees are drowning in technology, yet they want more and better devices and applications to do their jobs. At the same time, millennial workers, whom we all assume are the most enthusiastic about technology, are expressing a desire for more human, face-to-face interaction while also lobbying for more effective collaboration and productivity solutions. Organizations would be making a mistake if they overlook this "weak signal" of an emerging culture shift.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Ed Lindaman was the director of program planning for Apollo, working for North American Rockwell (formerly North American Aviation). In that role, he was responsible for combining the efforts of multiple work centers, contractors, NASA officials, and Rockwell people. He used to tell the story of how critical a rudimentary form of teleconferencing—communicating via television and telephone feeds—was in keeping that fast-paced and high-stakes project on track and on time. Since the people involved were spread all over the country, it could not have been done without teleconferencing.

Such early experiences with teleconferencing, and the subsequent development of the personal computer, computer networks, then the Internet, the cell phone and, finally, the World Wide Web, all took us into the 1990s in a very advanced mind-set about the future of work. "In the future, we will travel to get together, but not to do most basic work," said cell phone pioneer Craig McCaw at a teleconferencing conference in Seattle in the mid-1990s.

Fast-forward to early 2013. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer shocks the business world by announcing that she was ending a policy that allowed a high level of remote work at Yahoo, asking people to come to the office instead. As she explained in an interview shortly after:

"When you look at things like the Yahoo! Weather app, that wouldn't have happened if those two people hadn't run into each other," she said. "You needed someone from Flickr to say, 'Hey, I've got these geo-tagged photos, and I know where these photos were taken and we can probably detect whether or not there [are] faces in them or whether they're a scene' and them running into someone from Weather who says, 'Hey, could we make our app more beautiful?'"

"I sort of call it the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups effect," she added. "The chocolate and peanut butter taste great together, but that only happens when people really say, 'What happens when we combine these things?'"

This move focused attention on the value—or lack thereof—of telecommuting, when Mayer maintained the issue for her was innovation and collaboration. She had come from a culture, Google, where although remote work is happening constantly, key team members share physical locations and work face-to-face, for the most part. At Yahoo, Mayer had found a world where it was hard to figure out who was working on what, since so much was happening remotely and in a nearly full-time capacity.

Now comes a new study from enterprise software firm Cornerstone OnDemand, suggesting that employees, by a rather wide margin, prefer face-to-face communication and in-person collaboration when working on innovation. Most striking is that this opinion is pronounced even among younger employees, the opposite of what might be expected from the digital natives who make up the Millennial generation, and who are most famous for having their eyes focused on their phones at all times.

Cornerstone’s "The State of Workplace Productivity Report," based on a survey of 1,029 U.S. employees nationwide conducted by Kelton, asked people how they would prefer to collaborate with co-workers. Sixty percent of millennials and 72% of all respondents would prefer to collaborate in person, while 34% of millennials and 23% overall would prefer to collaborate online. Only 6% of millennials and 5% overall would prefer to collaborate via phone or video conference.

How can this be, when the tools of online and technology-enabled collaboration are so pervasive, and much improved, compared to just a few years ago? And how can this be, when the average person at work is fully aware of how much of their day, whether in the office, on the bus, at home or wherever, is spent sending and receiving work messages via email, IM, teleconference, and shared desktop software? Are we simply saying one thing—we love face-to-face communication—and doing another for reasons of convenience, expectations, and the demands of time?

Let me suggest that three related things are at work here. First, the Cornerstone study also reveals that nearly two in five employed Americans feel there is not enough collaboration in their workplace, but just one in five believes that their company could do a better job of providing applications that encourage collaboration. We know that we are swimming in oceans of information and constantly responding to messages. But this is not collaboration as much as it is keeping the trains running on time. Employees apparently intuit that collaboration for innovation requires good tools, yes, but also the kind of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups moments envisioned by Ms. Mayer.

The second factor at work is an emerging cultural trend, something that a forecaster might call a "weak signal" of something that could grow to become quite large. This is the phenomenon of digital unplugging or digital detoxes that you see popping up: a reporter’s positive story here about her unplugged vacation; a group over there talking about their dinner nights, at which everyone is required to check their tech at the door; a company instigating a series of non-meeting meetings as a way to spark connections and conversation about innovation.

Finally, the third factor is that we have a lot of experience now with mediated communication and collaboration. Very early research into both synchronous and asynchronous teleconferencing (think Web meetings and email) suggested that such mediated communication would be very effective for routine, practical, and generally impersonal task coordination. But the same research also suggested that for complex, innovation-focused, highly personal work, we would need full immersion in face-to-face communication or technology that enables that kind of experience. Full immersion telepresence can come close, but even now such technology has very limited availability. This research has been borne out by experience to a very large degree, and is reflected in the Cornerstone study results.

The lesson for organizations is this: To improve collaboration and innovation, look for a two-pronged strategy that combines better technology and collaboration applications, but that also does not overlook a healthy dose of old-fashioned face time.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • Alex Blumentals

    This way of presenting data is naturally biased and ignores or obscures the fact that all people are in the same boat, and that the fact that a particular cohort is larger etc, merely depicts that the most likely prevalent carrier of an idea-set will be from that generation. Like clearly boomers have stayed in majority of power positions til now, giving little space to new blood (in politics.)

    A deeper look IMO reveals that there is a crisis of values and ideas, where he fundamental notion of 'consumer' and all its implications is passe. We see the unsustainable nature of the unintended consequences, and the scarcity it has generated (poverty, lack of jobs, pollution, global warming, resource depletion, diversity loss, etc), and everyone is on the same earth-ship boat, which has become the sole relevant scale

  • Alex Blumentals

    Naturally the people in their early 20's are the ones on the edge of the transition to the new whatever that comes to be. They are the ones without capital, jobs or opportunities so they will create themselves and chart a new course. Because they have no money they will not embrace the same symbols of the past classes. Less car ownership for example; use more co-working; etc. This will forge a shift in fundamental orientation of values, beliefs. Because the crisis runs so deep, the iron is very hot indeed.

    But it is a mistake to think that this is isolating groups. plenty of people like ourselves, generations apart, are in the exact same boat. All our thinking is devoted to collaborative methods, and not raw juvenile attempts, but seasoned and crafted methods, which have been in the making for decades, incubating, waiting for the right time...

  • Jen Uner

    These stats are great! And so true. Face-to-face IS ideal, but even then you often need a technology solution where everyone in the room can share the content on their screens simultaneously and also with others in remote offices. This is exactly the kind of thing we think about at Oblong Industries. We've developed the Mezzanine collaborative conference room solution to do this, and have put forth the notion of "Infopresence": that the content and information for discussion is as important as the people discussing it. Thanks Glen for a great article.

  • Shell Haffner

    Great read, Glen!
    I think you’ve narrowed in on an important distinction here. The tools that we use in work are merely to facilitate innovation by freeing up valuable time to explore that Reese’s experience you cited. Of course, telecommunication tools are an exception because they can bring people together who would not normally have had the opportunity to collaborate because of distance.

    Alternative forms of communication cannot substitute for human interaction. They can be, however, a great way to organize and present data to relevant and distant parties in a clear and coherent manner. That’s why things like content management, CRM, and business process automation solutions are so popular, they keep the focus on what’s important by automating and simplifying workflows.

    Shell Haffner
    Manager, Worldwide Product Marketing
    Xerox Corporation

  • JD Eveland

    As one of the participants in that "early research" into computer-mediated communications, I'd like to offer a supplemental observation. My colleague Tora Bikson and I conducted the first ever empirical study of email use, reported in 1986. One of the findings emerging from that study was at the time rather counterintuitive; namely, that the vast bulk of email was exchanged not with colleagues across the globe or even on different time schedules, but with the people one worked with day-to-day, often in the office next door. At that time, when email was a rare phenomenon even in businesses, it was supposed to be the medium that enabled "anytime, anywhere" collaboration, not a way to avoid talking directly to the person next door. Now, when we send emails to our spouses and our kids text each other across the breakfast table, this doesn't seem so strange. The implication that we drew from this finding was that people rather quickly adapt to electronic communication, and may very well make it their primary medium when given the choice.

    Research following up on our initial study demonstrated, among other things, that communication media preference plays an enormous role. That is, for many people choice of communication medium is more important than the nature of the substance of the communication. If I have a strong preference for electronic communication and you like face-to-face meetings, I will tend to use electronic media rather than schlepping to the office despite your preference. If I work for Yahoo and now I'm forced to schlep to the office, I'm unlikely to be very happy about it and you may not even get my best work as a result. So while it is obvious that organization should have multiple means of communication, some of them electronic and some not, choice of communication medium in many if not most cases probably ought to be left to the preference of the individual rather than dictated by the organization according to some policy. Today there are so many media choices and so many ways in which they can interact seamlessly that dictating face-to-face as the only medium for innovative communication seems a step backwards rather than a step toward a more effective communication overall.

  • Alex Blumentals

    You mistake the meaning of 'communication' I am afraid. Messaging, exchanging data, etc surely is a transaction level communication, but it has almost no bearing on knowing one another, the kind of intimate space where trust emerges, minds and souls align. Avoiding this sort of contact is prevalent and leads to radical loss of creative power in groups. At home, it leads to dysfunctional families and health issues; at work, it is quite easy to experience a shift in growth, which should make it evident the difference that a small shift in "communication" (deeper kind) can have.

  • Elizaveta Mikhailovna Friedman

    I just bought a Nokia 105. It does nothing but make and receive calls and sms. Not even a camera. And I am totally excited about ditching my iPhone for it.