It is still depressingly commonplace to read proclamations of the death of the office. These are usually appended to some survey or other about the rise of flexible working or a case study of a workplace devoid of desks (or, more likely, one in which none are pictured). Of course, the actual conclusion we can draw from such things is that the office as we once knew it is now dead or mutating into something else, but that’s true for every aspect of modern life. The constant factor that ensures offices will always exist, in some form or other is the human they serve. We know that because, as Tom Allen proved at MIT in the 1980s, people communicate less well the greater the physical distance between them. Now new research from Stanford University shows how the very idea of ‘togetherness’ can have a significant impact on the way people perform. The study, by researchers Priyanka Carr and Gregory Walton was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and concluded that ‘social cues that signal an invitation to work with others can fuel intrinsic motivation’.
According to the experiments the important factor appears to be for people to feel they are working alongside others. Across a series of experiments, subjects were told they were either working alone to solve a given problem or that they were working with others on the same task. The results unequivocally showed that those who were told they were working as part of a team were significantly more motivated and performed better than those who were told they were working in isolation from others.
The picture that emerged from the experiments is complex and the authors hypothesise that it is social cues that are more important than social and physical structures so, in theory, remote workers could be managed to feel part of a team. But, I don’t believe it’s surprising that organisations and individuals maintain an attachment to physical togetherness as a source of those cues.
The gains from a feeling of togetherness can be significant. In the Stanford research individuals who were told they were working together persisted from a half to two-thirds longer on solving a challenge than those who believed they were working alone, while also reporting they were more interested in the task, generally performed better in its completion and even showed less signs of fatigue. They also appeared to become more generally engaged in their work. The subjects who believed they were working in a team chose to complete 53 percent more related tasks when asked to do so two weeks later.
“Our research found that social cues that conveyed simply that other people treat you as though you are working together on a task – rather than that you are just working on the same task but separately – can have striking effects on motivation,” said Walton in his commentary on the research. “Simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges.”
As we now know, physical structures are not necessary for this feeling of togetherness to exist, but they certainly make things easier and better in very specific ways. This is a hard won lesson and it hasn’t been forgotten by the world’s tech giants, such as Google (pictured), who continue to invest heavily in the physical environments they need to bring people together in one place, even while they work to create a new era of digital space. There’s a lesson there for those who still think the office will ever become unnecessary.