The Immortal ‘Serendipity’ Myth
I have been collecting mentions of all that glorious serendipity we are losing out on by working from home. However, as I reported in Getting Down To Business, this is a myth, a collective illusion, where I cited Claire Cain Miller:
People who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.
“That’s led to a lot of the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation — because that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many,” said Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, the real estate marketplace.
“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”
But trust me, we are going to hear this myth over and over as the debate about ‘getting back to normal’ stretches out over the next months and years. Here’s a recent sampler:
Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of innovation, design and organizational studies at New York University, believes that short, casual encounters at the workplace can be the way that insights form and spread. Such spontaneity is hard to generate via video calls or other digital channels, she observes.
Building on the gains made from remote work | Josh Levs
There’s no doubt that there will be benefits to having many employees see one another face-to-face again. For example, new connections and relationships can form, which can help spark serendipitous collaboration, and employees may learn more about what different departments are up to.
Why You May Actually Want to Go Back to the Office | Art Markham
The physical workplace enables moments of serendipity that can move projects along. You might bump into a colleague while thinking about a problem and ask a question that leads to a new and surprising solution.
Our CEO, Kyle Taylor, talks often about the value of serendipity in a shared office space. Those are moments when people from different teams strike up a conversation about a project at the coffee machine or in the elevator, for example, and those spontaneous interactions yield a new idea or innovation.
Those moments don't come easily with a remote team, where your conversations are scheduled, and there are no trips to the watercooler.
Note that the only evidence offered is anecdotal, even by the academic in the group. This is a zombie idea: one that won’t die, despite the lack of any proof.
What People Really Care About
On the contrary, there is evidence that shows pretty clearly that a large minority would quit the jobs — either immediately or as soon as they can get another job — if forced to return to the office, full-time.
In Let Me Work From Home, or I Will Find Another Job, Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis lay out their research on this issue:
To provide systematic evidence on these matters, we explore worker attitudes about returning to the office and the appeal of remote work in the June Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA). We also draw on earlier waves of the SWAA – covering nearly 50,000 working-age Americans since May 2020 – to track the evolution of worker desires and employer plans for working from home in the post-pandemic economy (Barrero, Bloom, and Davis, 2021).
In June, we put the following question to respondents who currently work from home at least one day per week:
How would you respond if your employer announced that all employees must return to the worksite 5+ days a week starting on August 1, 2021?
I would comply and return to the worksite
I would start looking for a job that lets me work from home at least 1 or 2 days a week, but return to the worksite if I don't find one by August 1st.
I would quit my job on or before August 1st, regardless of whether I got another job.
Figure 1 breaks down the responses. 58% would comply with their employer’s directive and return full time to business premises. 36% would comply but start looking for a job that allows some working from home, and 6% would quit rather than return to full-time in-person work on August 1st.
The researchers also asked workers and employers about their desires for working from home after the pandemic [emphasis mine]:
Returning to the SWAA for systematic evidence, Figure 3 summarizes the evolution of worker desires and employer plans for working from home after the pandemic ends. Both workers and employers have warmed to the idea of working from home since the onset of the pandemic. Throughout the period since May 2020, workers say they would like to continue working from home more than two days per week, on average, after the pandemic is over. In recent months, they say they would like to work from home almost half-time (2.4 days per week) in the post-pandemic economy. These statistics resonate with our findings in Figures 1 and 2 that many workers are willing to quit or seek a job with flexible working job before returning to full-time in-person work.
Employers plan for only about half as much working from home as workers want. As of June 2021, employers are telling their employees to plan for about 1.2 days per week of working from home in the post-pandemic economy. As Figure 3 shows, employer plans for the extent of working from home have risen 23% over the past year – from 1.0 days per week in July 2020 to 1.23 days in June 2021. Much of this upward drift took place during the first half of 2021, as the US economy reopened and labor markets tightened. While adverse selection concerns discouraged remote work before the pandemic (Emanuel and Harrington, 2021), Figure 3 suggests much of the COVID-driven shift to working from home will persist long after the pandemic recedes. Moreover, these employer plans suggest firms are weighing the costs and benefits of working from home and settling on a middle ground, as suggested by Behrens, Kichko, and Thisse (2021).
Our results help understand the historically high level of quits and job openings experienced in the U.S. economy in recent months.
The bottom line: workers would like to work at least two days per week from home (and presumably many would like even less time in the office), while employers want them to come to the office almost four days per week.
And the researchers did not ask about all that lost serendipity.