A thought experiment.
Imagine an organisation where everyone works remotely, from home and other places too.
“We need more innovation and collaboration”, says the CEO,”we need stronger relationships across the organisation”.
A task force is put together to decide what to do.
Their conclusion is that the way to address these three requirements is to establish a Head Office and get everyone to come into it every day (let’s assume they are all within commuting distance)
The report justifies its recommendations as follows:
“By getting people to spend time close to each other, we are encouraging them to develop relationships. We know people communicate with those that they are closest too, so we’ll mix the teams up. Each person will be in proximity to a range of people from across the organisation, so the relationships will be intra-team and across organisational silos.”
“People will be mixing all day and so there will serendipitous encounters, when they will share knowledge and ideas from across disciplines, divisions and projects. This will foster innovation, as we know this comes from cross-fertilisation of knowledge domains and expertise. We’ll put a water cooler in every area to promote these random connections.”
“By getting everyone in one place, it will be much easier for them to collaborate. We’ll make sure that they are all sitting in an open plan office and that there are lots of whiteboards around – and really good coffee machines.”
“Hang on”, says the Finance Director, “This office thing is going to cost a lot of money. Are you sure that getting everyone in it every day will lead to more innovation, collaboration and cross-organisational relationships”.
“Hey, wait a minute,”, say all the employees, “We’re going to have to spend two hours a day commuting, buy loads of formal clothes, spend a fortune on fares and food and drink, and get stressed out on a regular basis. Even if this this office thing made all this stuff happen, what’s in it for us?”
The task force is taken aback. Their assumptions, that seemed so reasonable, have to be justified. The burden of proof on them is now quite high. Can they meet it?
Where’s the evidence that proximity leads to relationships? That serendipitous encounters lead to more innovation? That open plan layouts and whiteboards lead to more collaboration?
And will the coffee really be any better than people have at home, where they can have their favourite bean exactly as they like?
Do you think the task force will get the go ahead and establish a Head Office? Or would they look for other ways to get the outcomes they want?
This is the counter-factual to the situation organisations are facing today. The arguments are the same but the investment has already been made.
Why should the burden of proof should be any different?
Perhaps ‘Return To the Office’ is perfect example of the sunk cost fallacy, because if you didn’t already have it, would you really build it?