What happens when over 60,000 Microsoft employees are forced to work from home because of a pandemic? Funny you should ask. Microsoft just came out with a large scale study that looks at exactly that question. The good news is that employees feel more included and supported by their managers than ever. But there is bad news as well:
“Our results show that firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication. Together, these effects may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network.”
To me, none of this is surprising. On a much smaller scale, we experienced exactly this when we experimented with a virtual workplace a decade ago. In fact, this virtually echoes the pros and cons of a virtual workplace that I have talked about in other previous posts, particularly the two (one, two) that dealt with the concept of “burstiness” – those magical moments of collaborative creativity experienced when a room full of people get “on a roll.”
What this study does do, however, is provide empirical evidence to back up my hunches. There is nothing like a global pandemic to allow the recruitment of a massive sample to study the impact of working from home.
In many, many aspects of our society, COVID was a game changer. It forcefully pushed us along the adoption curve, mandating widescale adoption of technologies that we probably would have been much happier to simply dabble in. The virtual workplace was one of these, but there were others.
Yet this example in particular, because of the breadth of its impact, gives us an insightful glimpse into one particular trend: we are increasingly swapping the ability to physically be together for a virtual connection mediated through technology. The first of these is a huge part of our evolved social strategies that are hundreds of thousands of years in the making. The second is barely a couple of decades old. There are bound to be consequences, both intended and unintended.
In today’s post, I want to take another angle to look at the pros and cons of a virtual workplace – by exploring how music has been made over the past several decades.
Supertramp and Studio Serendipity
My brother-in-law is a walking encyclopedia of music trivia. He put me on to this particular tidbit from one of my favorite bands of the 70’s and 80’s – Supertramp.
The band was in the studio working on their Breakfast in America album. In the corner of the studio, someone was playing a handheld video game during a break in the recording: Mattel’s Football. The game had a distinctive double beep on your fourth down. Roger Hodgson heard this and now that same sound can be heard at the 3:24 mark of The Logical Song, just after the lyric “d-d-digital”.
This is just one example of what I would call “Studio Serendipity.” For every band, every album, every song that was recorded collaboratively in the studio, there are examples like this of creativity that just sprang from people being together. It is an example of that “burstiness” I was talking about in my previous posts.
Billie Eilish and the Virtual Studio
But for this serendipity to even happen, you had to get into a recording studio. And the barriers to doing that were significant. You had to get a record deal – or – if you were going independent, save up enough money to rent a studio.
For the other side of the argument, let’s talk about Billie Eilish. Together with her brother Finneas, these two embody virtual production. We first heard about Billie in 2015 when they recorded Ocean Eyes in a bedroom in the family’s tiny LA Bungalow and uploaded it to SoundCloud. Billie was 14 at the time. The song went viral overnight and it did lead to a record deal, but their breakout album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was recorded in that same bedroom.
Digital technology dismantled the vertical hierarchy of record labels and democratized the industry. If that hadn’t happened, we might never have heard of Billie Eilish.
The Best of Both Worlds
Choosing between virtual and physical workplaces is not a binary choice. In the two examples I gave, creativity was a hybrid that came from both solitary inspiration and collaborative improvisation. The first thrives in a virtual workplace and the second works best when we’re physically together. There are benefits to both models, and these benefits are non-exclusive.
A hybrid model can give you the best of both worlds, but you have to take into account a number of things that might be a stretch for the typical HR policies – things like evolutionary psychology, cognition and attentional focus, non-verbal communication strategies and something that neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls “somatic markers.” According to Damasio, we think as much with our bodies as we do with our brains.
Our performance in anything is tied to our physical surroundings. And when we are looking to replace a physical workplace with a virtual substitute, we have to appreciate the significance this has on us subconsciously.
Take communication, for example. We may feel that we have more ways than ever to communicate with our colleagues, including an entire toolbox of digital platforms. But none of them account for this simple fact: the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We communicate with our eyes, our hands, our bodies, our expression and the tone of our voice. Trying to squeeze all this through the trickle of bandwidth that technology provides, even when we have video available, is just going to produce frustration. It is no substitute for being in the same room together, sharing the same circumstances. It would be like trying to race in a car with an engine where only one cylinder was working.
This is perhaps the single biggest drawback to the virtual workplace – this lack of “somatic” connection – the shared physical bond that underlies some much of how we function. When you boil it down, it is the essential ingredient for “burstiness.” And I just don’t think we have a technological substitute for it – not at this point, anyway.
But the same person who discovered burstiness does have one rather counterintuitive suggestion. If we can’t be in the same room together, perhaps we have to “dumb down” the technology we use. Anita Williams Wooley suggests the good, old-fashioned phone call might truly be the next best thing to being there.