As bosses across the country weigh whether and when to bring employees back to the office, one argument keeps cropping up again and again. Being together in physical space, this thinking goes, is essential for spontaneous interactions and the creativity they generate.
"Innovation isn't always a planned activity. It's bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had," Apple CEO Tim Cook said, for example. JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon claimed working from home "doesn't work for spontaneous idea generation."
Which sounds like a compelling case for herding your people back to the office. Except for one thing. There's basically no evidence that random in-person chitchat actually leads to greater creativity. In fact, studies suggest it harms it.
Does bumping into people really boost creativity?
If you find that hard to believe, I point you to this survey of 42,000 office workers from a few years back. The goal of the researchers was to test the claim that open-plan offices lead to more interaction and therefore more spontaneous creativity. In short, does bumping into people at the office lead to more and better ideas? The definitive answer was no.
Rather than spurring fruitful conversations, all the "sociability" of open-plan offices just caused people to hide under their headphones. "Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues," the researchers concluded.
Want more evidence? Then how about this Harvard study showing when firms switched to an open-plan setup, face-to-face interactions actually fell 76 percent and email and messaging usage shot up. Taken together, this evidence can probably best be summed up by the headline my Inc.com colleague Geoffrey James wrote at the time: "It's Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time."
Check your assumptions about in-person work
These studies focus on noisy open-plan offices specifically, but logic suggests that if the office configuration that's specifically designed to facilitate spontaneous interaction actually drives people apart, then the problem just might be spontaneous interaction. And, in fact, that's what the New York Times' Claire Cain Miller found when she started looking around for evidence that being together boosts creativity (hat tip to Galaxy Brain). Instead the experts, told her there's not much to back up this common management belief.
"There's credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation, but is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There is almost no data whatsoever," Ethan S. Bernstein, the Harvard professor behind the research mentioned above, tells her.
Which isn't to say there is no reason to go back to the office. Your team might like working that way, the office is less distracting than home for some, or there may be reasons specific to your business that makes it more practical. But if the only reason you're pushing for more face-to-face time is that you think it leads to more spontaneous interaction and therefore more creativity, then you should probably check whether the evidence actually supports that view.