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Escaping the bubble: From home office to collaborative space

I joined WillowTree following a five-year stint as a remote worker. I viewed this as a trade off–It was a great position with a dynamic company, but I would be giving up the convenience of working at home. This means commuting and dusting off the “work clothes” again. With a young family, I assumed I would become more time-starved than I already was. What I didn’t expect were the enormous benefits to my personal well-being that came from joining a collaborative, co-located, work environment.

After settling into my new position, I quickly realized this wasn’t a trade off at all. It was actually a win-win. Remote workers–myself included–often jokingly referred to working from home as “living in a bubble.” It turns out, that was more true than I realized.

Novelty vs. Distraction

The most beneficial aspect of leaving the bubble is that has been immensely energizing. I have fewer “man, I need coffee” moments throughout the work day, and I have more left in the tank for life outside of work. I was curious about how my energy and motivation level was able to stay so high, and discovered that psychologists identify “novelty” as powerful motivator in our brains. A 2013 study on the idea of novelty says:

“Theories of motivation…place novelty and surprise among the primary factors that arouse interest, motivate exploratory…behavior, and drive learning.” (Bartlo, Mirolli, Baldassarre)

Working at home, the most novel thing in my workspace was the new, creative place my dogs would find to sleep for the day. At WillowTree, we are constantly changing spaces– from personal space, to team spaces, conference rooms, and social spaces. This kind of movement encourages openness and good old-fashioned “hallway conversation.” When working remote, nearly every conversation has a purpose, or a pre-defined topic. So there is often little room for spontaneous dialogue. Having hallway conversations–free of such constraints–provides the space to grow creatively and professionally.

Don’t break my flow

In order to benefit from a collaborative location without falling prey to distraction, you need some “flow” time. The concept of flow is core value at WillowTree. Flow is a concept we have explored extensively–we even wrote a entire post about why it’s a vital part of our work day. In short, flow is the state of being fully immersed in a task, similar to the common concept of being “in the zone.” Interruptions to flow come at high cost - it can take time to refocus and find your place before you can start moving forward again.

It is a cultural norm at WillowTree to respect flow. You can book it on your calendar and no one will schedule within that time. From a former remote-worker’s perspective, simply having designated flow time as a resource is motivation enough to optimize it. When you’re working from home, time seems deceptively abundant. “Work time” can be anytime, so there’s always more, right? Evidently, that’s not exactly the case.

It’s all about balance

Perhaps, the most surprising change in leaving the bubble is the anticipated time struggle has somehow gone in the other direction. I find it easier now to get to the gym, to take my daughter to gymnastics, and have a flexible schedule. Although I still have the occasional deadline crunch, having a separate time and place for work makes it easier to compartmentalize work and life throughout the week.

I wasn’t alone in struggling to balance work and life while in the bubble though. Research supports the fact that remote employees experience higher work/life “interference” than their in-office counterparts. They found that family life interfered more often with work. But also–somewhat counter-intuitively–that they actually missed or neglected more family activities due to work.

Remote workers can also struggle with a phenomenon of work “intesification” that results from feeling “always on” or constantly available for work. I certainly experienced this–while I was physically home outside work hours, I was mentally still on the clock. This illustrates how remote workers can find work interfering more with life than those who work in a more collaborative office space.

Collaboration is crucial

The proof is in the project when it comes to the power of co-located team. Companies, like Apple and Google, were built from the ground-up through collaboration. IBM–who pioneered the remote work concept–is bringing their employees back to co-located spaces. Even the CIA has deployed co-located teams to fight terrorism. It goes to show that big problems require collaboration.

Not surprisingly, researchers have shown that employees physically removed from each other not only talk less, but communicate less in digital channels as well. Researchers at the University of Michigan observed that geographically diverse workers attempting to collaborate don’t use remote technology more to collaborate. Instead, they re-organize their work to eliminate the need for coordination and collaboration. In other words, they create handoffs. This creates a difficult workflow. In my experience working remote, our unforeseen issues were quite frequently the result of a broken or misunderstood handoff.

What is the better option?

From a corporate perspective, I can see the allure of a remote work model. It allows you to explore talent outside local area, and avoiding employee relocation removes a barrier to recruitment. Plus, you get to remove a pretty hefty cost for office space from your balance sheet. But it begs the questions, is this the most productive option for your team?

There are volumes of research on whether a given employee is more productive in the office or remote, and they all agree: “it depends”. Teasing out the factors that contribute to a successful work from home arrangement are complicated. Personality traits of each individual–such introversion or extroversion–can come into play as much as the nature of the work. This cohesion ultimately affects the overall success and flow of a project.

It is on this point that my personal experience and the research agree: teams absolutely perform better when co-located. Escaping the bubble and returning to a collaborative environment has become a decreasingly theoretical debate for me. I can simply see it. When in the same room, everyone can improve software everyday–QA can improve code before it is written, a designer can solve the business challenge, and a Project Manager can improve UX. No one has to wait for their turn in the process.

Whether or not–and the extent to which–companies utilize remote workers is a complex question dependent on a number of organizational and individual factors. However, companies seeking to innovate should recognize that collaboration drives industry-leading innovation. And there is no technology or process as conducive to collaboration as co-location. Being co-located has been a big advantage for my team, and has been great for me personally both in and out of the office.

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