OPINION | What's it going to take to get workers back to the office?

Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

Ten weeks of lockdown has taught us that working from home is very doable. We know our people can be trusted to get their work done, even without a manager looking over their shoulders. We’ve seen that they can be more productive if they’re able to work without distraction, and that they can meet and work with colleagues via their screens. And we know that they’re happiest when they’re allowed to manage their own time, and especially when they don’t have to deal with the drudgery of the daily commute.

Given all this, what would bring people back to the office, presuming of course that every precaution had been taken to make it a safe place to be?

The answer is simple: innovation. The ordinary stuff in our jobs is easy enough to do sitting alone at our dining tables but research has shown over and over again that face-to-face engagement is essential to foster relationships, confidence and understanding that’s absent in Zoom, Slack or Teams.

You're going to need creativity

Creativity needs a spark between people. In advertising agencies writers and artists are always paired with each other. In fact, most clients have creative teams working on their brands because creative people come up with their best ideas when they get together and brainstorm.

Architects, designers and even chefs all seek out like-minded people to bounce their ideas around with. They need someone else to add an essential element or take an unnecessary one away. Even people in technical disciplines – think of engineers and software developers – need a thinking buddy to help extract the best ideas from their creative minds.

Designing a new product or service for your business is exactly the same: it needs the people who understand what you do and how you do it, from technicians and project managers to sales and marketing teams. It even – or especially – needs the CFO.

It takes all of these people to know what will work and, crucially, what won’t. Part of the reason for this is the nature of creativity: it is as much about solving problems as it is about great ideas. Few people develop workable ideas as well on their own as they do in teams.

Michelle Greenwald, CEO of Inventours which specialises in insights for improving innovation processes, described it perfectly in Forbes Magazine when she said, ‘Learning from what others are doing can spark the kind of random associations that new ideas and better processes are built upon’.

Many people can’t re-imagine a post-lockdown office, largely because they’re just thinking about returning to what went before. But the future of the workplace requires taking what we’ve learnt can be done alone – all the ordinary stuff – and what we’ve learnt is so much better done in teams – all the creative stuff – and establishing a hybrid which sees the office become an innovation hub.

If people think of the office this way, it becomes an inspiring place where new ideas are nurtured and curiosity is developed, and where community is motivated. Get it right and it won’t be long before people are comfortable making regular forays into the innovation hub to collaborate on new and exciting projects with colleagues.

Andrew Robinson is co-founder and executive director of SiSebenza.

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