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The Surprising Truth About In-Person Work

image of employee at desk and workplace collaboration score meter
by
The Robin Team
Published on

Despite the recent popularity and widespread adoption of flexible working models such as hybrid and remote work, the concept of people coming together in the office has proven more important than anyone previously thought. To thrive at work, it seems, people need other people (physically) around them, preferably in the same room. Having an in-person working environment, it turns out, really matters.

Ironically, only through losing collaboration in shared office space, as we did during the global pandemic, have we come to better understand the critical role of returning to the office for: 

  • Driving collaboration
  • Supporting job satisfaction and people’s mental well-being
  • Fostering company culture
  • Facilitating mentorship, professional relationships, and professional development
  • Boosting creativity and innovation

This blog post is aimed at workplace leaders. It will lay out the latest social science research to explain that, despite the recent popularity of hybrid and remote work, work in the office continues to generate massive business value and provides employers and employees with an array of often-overlooked benefits.  

There is more to in-person work than just getting butts in seat. It's time to be intentional about in-office activities.

The Productivity Myth Around Remote Work

During the darkest days of the COVID-19 global pandemic (2020-21), when organizations everywhere were compelled to switch – almost overnight – to fully or mostly remote work, a common belief was that remote work was more productive than the traditional 9-to-5 in-office working model. 

The basic argument went as follows: remote work freed people from the stress and time-loss of morning and afternoon commutes; people and remote workers could also work more productively and collaboratively by leveraging remote-work tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

But after the initial shock of the remote-work shift wore off and after people had worked for a while with Zoom, Slack, and other remote-work tools, a new awareness began to emerge. People actually missed coming into the office and human connection with their work friends, teammates, and professional colleagues.

Younger professionals in the remote workforce were losing visibility and missing opportunities for mentoring, networking, pay raises, and promotion, according to Forbes, while older managers saw how challenging it was to motivate and manage people working remotely. 

The productivity of many employees simply wasn’t thriving when they inhabited a remote-only work environment. What people missed most, and what they needed most for increased focus and productivity, was being with other people in the same place at least a few days a week.

Keep tabs on how your office is being used with tools like workplace analytics.

Why is Hybrid Work the New Normal for Companies?

Attitudes about the future of remote-only work began to shift in 2022 and beyond, not just among company leadership, but also within the rank-and-file. Gallup surveys showed that the majority of workers (61% in fact) said they’d prefer to work a hybrid schedule combining the flexibility of working from home on some days with the value-adding connection and community of coming into the office. Bottom line? People typically favor hybrid work because it offers the best of both worlds:

  • Working from home gives people the opportunity to get more heads-down, focused work done in an environment that best suits them, while also offering more flexibility, no commuting, and work-life balance in their day-to-day lives. 
  • Coming into the physical office space, on the other hand, offers people opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, team-building, visibility with leadership, and the brainstorming that spurs innovative ideas and problem-solving. 

Research from Cisco found that both employers and employees globally believe a healthy mix of office work and working from home positively impacts:

  • Productivity: 72% or employers, 61% of employees
  • Cost savings: 68% of employers, 65% of employees
  • Employee wellbeing: 66% of employers, 60% of employees
  • Team communication: 63% of employers, 53% of employees
  • Diversity and inclusion: 62% of employers, 57% of employees
  • Workplace culture: 59% of employers, 51% of employees

Why Physical Proximity Matters

People’s preferences for working from home (at least some of the time) aside, working in the same office with others can actually enhance employee productivity, facilitate knowledge-sharing, and boost motivation. Here’s how social science research backs that up . . .

A research study from Northwestern University showed that employees who sit within 25 feet of their high-performing colleagues, independent of other factors, saw a 15% improvement in work productivity. Thus, careful consideration of seating arrangements is crucial for optimizing people’s performance.

Physical proximity also plays an important role in facilitating knowledge sharing among employees. When people are physically close to one another in an office, it becomes easier to share information, ask questions, and provide immediate feedback. This friction-free exchange of knowledge fosters a “culture of learning,” not to mention a more dynamic, innovative working environment where people help develop people.

When teams sit close to each other, they can reap many more benefits than sitting siloed from one another.

A study from the National Library of Medicine found that moving two researchers into the same building, independent of other factors, boosted their collaboration rate up to 2.7 times in the third year after their move. 

Finally, being physically present in an office can significantly boost employee motivation. The social dynamics of an office where employees can see their peers working hard can create a palpable sense of accountability and motivation. 

A study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that individuals working in a collaborative environment were 50% more effective at completing tasks compared to employees working by themselves (i.e., no physical proximity to others). Moreover, research participants who acted in the office and collaboratively reported higher engagement levels, lower fatigue, reduced stress, and greater success rates.

In-Person Collaboration and Innovation

As the Greek philosopher Aristotle explained two millennia ago, humans are inherently social animals who evolved in communal settings. That same evolutionary social impulse applies in the office, too. Face-to-face interactions are visceral, multi-dimensional, and more impactful than virtual interactions mediated by technology tools like Zoom. 

In-person collaboration also fosters new ideas and creative problem-solving better. Florence, Italy, for example, was the epicenter of Renaissance art partly because that’s where so many of the great artists were working, studying, and socializing, from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond. Remote working platforms like Zoom are great, but they simply can’t replace the energy and unique, visceral power of spontaneous interactions and brainstorming sessions in physical workplaces. 

A pizza party and some free salad does not make up a company culture but when free food is offered, employees do tend to come into the office.

There’s an unquantifiable synergy and mysterious chemistry unlocked when two or more smart people come into a room to grapple with a complicated business challenge. Today’s innovations also happen across functions, with people lending their expertise from multiple domains to solve shared challenges. Any of today’s medical devices are cross-functional feats of design, but also of engineering, medicine, software, data analytics, and beyond. 

In-person interactions in the office can spur business innovation by creating environments that encourage collaboration, serendipity (i.e., unexpected interactions among people where ideas get born and shaped), and hands-on experimentation. By designing their physical spaces to be open and spark interactions, organizations can cultivate a culture of continuous innovation easy collaboration, and creative problem-solving.

It’s no surprise, for instance, that world-renowned academic research centers such as Stanford (Palo Alto, CA) and MIT (Cambridge, MA) have fostered large ecosystems of start-ups around them, as laboratory ideas have spilled over into the creation of companies in places like Silicon Valley. Many of the founders, leaders and top talent of these companies started as either Professors or graduate students at these famous research universities.

Building Company Culture and Employee Engagement

Human interactions within shared spaces will always be important for cultivating a strong company culture, one where people feel a sense of belonging, share behavioral norms/values, and align around a common organizational mission.

On an individual level, in-person interactions can lead to higher employee engagement and stronger work relationships because each person feels connected to something bigger than themselves (a shared culture and set of values). That feeling of belonging helps organizations retain talent and create a competitive advantage in a fast-changing business landscape. Virtual meetings are great for many workers and teams but are no substitute for the quality of face-to-face interaction.

Finally, the networking, relationship-building, and mentoring that occurs in an office setting helps people develop their skills and social capital, which creates synergistic value for individuals and organizations alike.

Whether it's turning to a team member to discuss a project or having a casual chat with a different team, the office is where unplanned collaboration happens.

Work-Life Balance and Mental Health

During the early days of fully remote work, when everyone was working from home five days a week, remote workers experienced increased stress caused by an inability to keep home and work separate. The physical separation between work and home life is healthy and much-desired, and it’s foundational for maintaining work-life balance.

A hybrid model of work offers many advantages over remote-only work, Social interactions in the workplace also offer benefits for mental health, as people feel less isolated and feel a stronger sense of connection with others. When people have a challenge in the office, even a mental health challenge, they can interact with colleagues, managers, or the Human Resources department to access support and resources. 

Surprised No More

The surprising truth about working in person is that people actually want to come together in the office, and for all the benefits we’ve described in above. Yes, long commutes are often hard and yes people want the flexibility to work from home at least some of the time (i.e., hybrid work) in order to better balance their work and life. 

Hybrid work sits in that sweet spot between both needs, giving people the flexibility to work from home with the benefits of coming together in the office to pursue the 4 C’s of connection, collaboration, creativity, and culture-building. The social science research is clear: in-person collaboration improves productivity for most workers and boosts the overall performance of most organizations. 

It's time to stop making decisions in the dark. Use data from your office spaces to create a workplace that powers productivity.

Robin exists to make coming into the office as frictionless as possible with technology tools like space management software and workplace analytics. We’ve recently launched a new tool, the Workplace Collaboration Score, to help you evaluate how effective your office is at creating a collaborative in-person work environment. CollabScore is built upon a firm foundation of the social science research cited in this blog post and in Robin’s must-read new report, The Science Behind In-Person Productivity at the Office.

Want to learn even more about how Robin can help you with hybrid work, driving increased productivity, and addressing your organization's unique needs? Reach out to us today.

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featured report

The Science Behind In‑Person Productivity at the Office

Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot
Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot