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Futurist Forum

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.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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.

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