A return to the office is key for innovation

We may be productive working from home, but there’s an important reason we need to get back to the office

After more than six months of lockdowns, social distancing and widespread working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are starting to adapt to this new normal. But as much as 2020 has shown the power of human resilience, I worry that the loss of in-person interaction and collaboration at work is leaving an indelible mark on our lives and on society. 

So much gets lost when people aren’t able to interact in person. Creativity is stifled immensely, and ultimately, so is innovation. Going back to a shared workspace is not just good for those looking to work outside of their homes, it will be crucial for sustained business success.

The benefits of being outside your bubble

We are social beings – we are supposed to interact with one another. Without in-person interactions in the office, we are at risk of staying in our individual ‘bubbles’. It’s comfortable to surround ourselves with people who espouse what we believe. But when you go into an office, you are among different kinds of people. It’s inevitable that you interact with people who think differently, who may not hold the same values, or who don’t engage in the same way of thinking as you do.

Sharing and listening to varying viewpoints and perspectives can lead to the most creative and innovative ideas. It is so important to be able to do that, because that’s when you can really reach a compromise. And that, to me, is when the greatest examples of innovation transpire – when you get perspective you might not otherwise get by remaining in your bubble. 

Our lives on Zoom

On the plus side, technology has been a silver lining during these times. Can you imagine if this pandemic had happened 30 years ago, before we were connected? Video conferencing has become as much a part of our everyday as meeting by the coffee machine once was. It has been a saviour for businesses. Many industries have found the transition to virtual work to be rather seamless, and that employees can be pretty productive working from home. This pandemic has inspired some people to think outside the box, because there is an opportunity to think about things like education differently and maybe even to democratise it. 

Yet even the most productive Zoom call can’t fully capture the energy of a group of people collaborating in the same room. One big loss that comes from working remotely is the lack of opportunity for unplanned interactions. These are the run-ins by the watercooler, the spontaneous conversations while walking down a corridor. These interactions spark ideation, strengthen social bonds and stimulate creativity, which all lead to innovation

How we can go back to the office safely

We all have to believe that a return to daily in-person interactions is in the foreseeable future, that there will be ways to go back more safely. We’re starting to see that if we comply with medical guidelines and exercise the necessary precautions a return to shared space could be possible. But we must continue to be vigilant. And before we can consider a complete return, we should get testing and contact tracing right.

One of the only ways we are going to get back to any sense of normality is if we have a vaccine. Otherwise, we will be maintaining the current status quo – practising social distancing and wearing masks. But it’s an unprecedented moment for the scientific community, and scientists are working as fast as they can to test vaccines without compromising safety. 

That one medical innovation could get us all back to the office that much faster, so that we can collaborate creatively, share perspectives outside our bubbles and bring more cutting-edge ideas to every part of society.

Lisa Ling is a globe-travelling investigative journalist and activist, having reported on social injustices, environmental, business and women’s issues all over the world. Previously the executive producer and host of Our America on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), Ling expanded her documentary repertoire with an eight-episode series on CNN, titled This Is Life With Lisa Ling.

Ling got her start in journalism as a correspondent for Channel One News, where she covered the civil war in Afghanistan at 21 years of age. She later became a co-host of ABC Daytime’s hit programme The View, which won its first daytime Emmy during her time with the programme. She was also a special correspondent for CNN’s Planet in Peril series and is a contributing editor for USA Today’s USA Weekend magazine.

She is the co-author of Mother, Daughter, Sister, Bride: Rituals of Womanhood, and Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home, which she penned with her sister, Laura. 

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