Call me  old school, but I do not think that telecommuting should be a permanent replacement for working from an office. In my opinion working virtually kills the spontaneous exchange of ideas. The aspect of telecommuting that brings about a lack of work-life balance, makes me even less enthusiastic about working from home.

How traditional work environments foster innovation

What else convinces me that we should not just write off in-office work as the post COVID-19 new normal? It’s my deep conviction that good ideas that turn into tangible actions or products, are  seldom the creation of a single person. Even though individuals are often-cited as creators or  inventors, it is hardly imaginable that such innovations are the result of one person sitting at his/her kitchen table making a go at it: from start to finish.

Most of what is out there, regardless of  purpose (i.e. commercial products or public goods) is the result of collaboration between individuals with similar interests, and commitments. Of course, there are those who in isolation produce serious writings, compose incredible music, or magnificent paintings. However, for most of us who are not gifted with such talents, teamwork is a necessity. We depend on others to build on our original idea, or we contribute to improving thoughts emanating from others. While some of these  interactions  (thought sharing), are planned, a good portion of  them  take place spontaneously, at odd times, and in unexpected places.  Phrases such as  “water cooler chats”, “elevator pitch”, “Friday afternoons shooting the breeze” that typically happen in  office environments, do not belong to the virtual world of work. It would be very difficult to arrange a Zoom meeting with a colleague to just shoot the breeze about an idea that may one day bring success, or improvements for the company or organization.

Those that lunch and walk together…

If you are still not convinced, let me give you a brief personal example. During my tenure as the Director of the UN System Staff College (UNSSC), there isn’t a single idea I can take full credit for. Some of the ideas that I thought were exceptional were either politely nixed by my colleagues, or further refined and enriched before implementation. Planned meetings for “brain storming” were not always the channels used to examine potential solutions to business problems, or the development of new initiatives. At times, thought sharing took place during the most unexpected times and places. This  included lunch with colleagues at the cafeteria, coffee breaks on the balcony, or walks with a co-worker to the parking lot at the end of the day. Despite the fact that they connect us, virtual apps can unfortunately not facilitate opportunities for spontaneous thought sharing. 

Technology has not been able to master the much-needed human interactions that allow us to connect. Even if we could one day beam our  avatars, I’m pretty confident that my colleagues would not be keen on receiving me unannounced in their living rooms. So let us face it, the death of the physical office environment will most likely involve the demise of spur-of-the-moment exchanges of ideas between co-workers. For now, we do not have an option as COVID-19 has made many of us telecommuters, but let us not completely write off the benefits of working in an office environment .

In person outdoes virtual

There are many positive aspects to telecommuting . Less pollution, saving on commuting time, enhanced ability to concentrate on a task without interruptions, and the opportunity to wear comfortable clothing all day. However, we should not underestimate the  host of adverse effects  related to  telecommuting. Chief among these is the lack of on-the- spot, free floating interactions between  colleagues.

Do not get  me wrong, I am not against working virtually , but I do not support it as a permanent replacement for in-office work environments. Telecommuting is beneficial to an organization in various ways , but it should be offered on an ad-hoc basis, and not perceived as an employee’s right. For organizations to evolve and  become more agile and effective, the informal and unprompted sharing of ideas is necessary. This is something that virtual platforms -no matter how sophisticated, cannot accommodate.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.