Give Workers the Power to Choose: Cave or Commons
Not so long ago occupying the "corner office" was a sign that managers had reached the pinnacle of status in their organizations. However, the spare bedroom in one's house has quietly usurped the corner office when it comes to the alpha position in organizations, as increased working from home (or from wherever) has come to signal greater power and autonomy within an organization.
In this sense, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's recent dictate to report to work was viewed as much as an attack on individual freedom as an attack on the family. Paradoxically, FastCompany.com published an article that same week about how "employees work beyond the cube," showcasing Plantronics' decision to give their employees the choice to either work from home, commute to headquarters, or join one of three Bay Area locations of NextSpace (shared workspaces). The co-working choice was heralded as a win-win for workers and their companies, with proximity, diversity and choice of location all stimulating creativity. Google then chimed in by saying that they don't even have a policy — at least that anyone could find — that says when and where people need to work. Their belief is that a workplace that is comfortable, healthy, and inviting drives the desire to be there.
What these examples all hinge on, however, is autonomy — control over how you use time and space. It is important to realize that when one works from home, that person (typically) has total control over time and space. However, at the office, control over one's minutes-in-the-day and who's-standing-at-my-door-now, evaporates. For this reason, I am a big fan of cave-and-commons designs in offices — private spaces (caves) where one can work without being interrupted by colleagues walking by or cube chatter. (Of course, it's also a good idea to turn your cellphone off.) And close-by, common areas where team members can pull together for critical face-to-face time. If you take all the caves away, people are distracted and interrupted and creativity falters.
Every organization needs the right balance of caves and commons — and what that precise balance is depends on what the organization's particular goals and challenges are, and more granularly, what the immediate situation of a work team is. The overarching truth is this: there is no question that physical distance creates barriers to communication. However, constant co-habitation can decrease performance, particularly when people are working on creative tasks. In my work and teaching, many are surprised by the fact that over five decades of research have unequivocally shown that people working alone are more creative than those working in teams. Given that the tasks facing organizations and teams require flexibility, a cave-and-commons approach to organizational design helps ensure that people can work individually, away from potential distractions, but also can nimbly pull themselves together for teamwork.
How do you know when to emphasize the commons and pull people together, and when to free them up to find and spend time in caves? In my book, Creative Conspiracy, I set out these guiding rules:
Ring the team dinner bell and find the commons (in other words, get to the office for a team meeting) when:
- the group first forms (norms and expectations can be set within microseconds of a group's first meeting);
- the overarching goal is not clear;
- trust is low (physical co-presence increases trust and bonding) — for example, oxytocin, the human bonding hormone, is released when people can connect physically;
- uncertainty is high;
- a crisis erupts;
- conflict needs to be resolved (conflicts that are dealt with via email and text start to spiral out of control as compared to face to face interaction) — people are more likely to "flame" each other in an email, but not face to face; and
- when team members need to give and receive feedback.
Extend the curfew and allow people to go home or at least find their private, uninterrupted space — perhaps at home:
- after the group is formed;
- when the work to be done is clear, deliverables specified and the group has essentially completed a team charter;
- when status differences exist that might stifle the input of younger, less senior people and their input is needed — for example, when teams meet virtually, merit is the biggest determinant of influence (not personal charisma); and
- when participation is uneven — for example, when groups meet in person only one person can talk at a time and typically one person dominates — but this is not true when meeting virtually.
Ideally, every organization should allow some flexibility on the where-and-when-to-work question — if not for any other reason than to optimize performance across the diverse set of challenges that teams face. If organizations don't take proactive steps, people manufacture their own caves — whether by working from home, putting on earphones to tune out the drivel, or simply slipping out to the local WiFi café. The same is true for commons — there is a human need for people to gather around the water cooler and so, making the workplace inviting in different ways can build community. The challenge for leaders is in achieving the right balance through informal influence and modeling, and formal policy moves.