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Innovation Culture Bulletin: A comfortable distance

Work & Lifestyle

As the first in a series looking at office communication, we delve into the politics of “headphone etiquette”, overlapping lunches, Slack, and more, to see how you can strengthen the talk in your office.

“Innovation comes from the interactions of people at a comfortable distance from one another, neither too close nor too far.” — Malcolm Gladwell



In an article that’s now nearly 15 years old, Malcolm Gladwell compared the layout of Silicon Valley offices to that of Greenwich Village in New York. He draws from author Jane Jacobs, who lived on Hudson St in the early 1960s, near the intersection between Bleecker St and 8th Ave. Jacobs attributes the neighborly community — where residents would leave keys for friends with the bodega guy, and the candy store owner would supervise children crossing the street — to the particular configuration of the Village’s buildings and roads. She argued that when a neighborhood is oriented toward the street, the active sidewalks become host to serendipitous interactions between different people, who form relationships via casual contacts that they would otherwise never have met.

This sounds like exactly the type of interaction employers hope for among their staff. Indeed, offices that historically resembled gated communities — with the secretary near the entrance, and execs in isolated corner offices — are being replaced by open plan hubs with plenty of potential for bumping into one another. The once secluded offices have been replaced by noisy, bustling public spaces.

It might be interesting to examine one’s foosball skills in relation to the duration of their time spent working in “New Economy” offices.
It might be interesting to examine one’s foosball skills in relation to the duration of their time spent working in “New Economy” offices.

The upside, of course, is the random, casual interactions, which can give birth to surprising and maybe otherwise hidden and dormant ideas. “Innovation is fundamentally social,” Gladwell writes, “Ideas arise as much out of casual conversations as they do out of formal meetings.”

But the downside — and this will be more true for some than others — is the lack of quietness and privacy many require in order to be productive. After any idea or plan comes the need to execute and do, which requires a degree of isolation in order to focus on the task in hand. This is when workers often find refuge in headphones, which can help block out distractions and significantly boost productivity.

For the colleague of the headphone wearer, however, it can often be hard to tell whether they are plugged in because they specifically don’t want to be disturbed, because they just want to enjoy music, or because they are trying to block out loud conversations. Is it bad office etiquette to keep your headphones on all the time? There is no single answer, as everyone works differently, but one could argue that being plugged in all day exudes a secluded attitude damaging to communication. At the same time, when you are trying to concentrate, and a colleague incessantly interrupts with non-urgent matters, it can be frustrating.

So how do we find a balance? Our Innovation Bulletin Five this week provides some tips your whole office can try.

1. Headphones etiquette. Try setting a self-imposed headphones timetable where at least a part of your day is open for interruption, and perhaps a note to others to save non-urgent matters for a longer chat during that time. If you are just trying to enjoy music while you work, perhaps take turns sharing your tunes with the office (they might like them too), or experiment with open-back headphones (the opposite of noise-cancelling ones) — Springwise-featured Here Active Listening earbuds will even let you EQ the sounds around you. There could also be merit in having distracting conversations in parts of the room away from the desks, or only letting yourself wear headphones if you absolutely have to, as you never know how you could be contributing to others’ issues.

2. Overlapping lunch times. The Springwise-featured Humanyze (some called the Moneyball of offices) tracked employee behavior and produced data showing that software developers who ate lunch together wrote 10 percent more code than those who dined solo. Sales representatives with more relationships across a company also sold more. The learning is simple — communication is good, so try to increase the opportunities for talk without impacting the amount of time left for doing. Perhaps implement overlapping lunches once or twice a week, or entice employees into break areas with afternoon pick-me-ups.

3. Messaging apps. As well as providing an obvious solution to interruption, chat services like Slack can reduce the number of internal emails about minor issues that everybody finds themselves needlessly cc’d into. Some offices find that productivity improved after introducing messaging apps, as it lets colleagues respond to each other at the time when they’re most ready, while others liked its ability to enable people to work on documents together remotely. Communication transparency also improved dramatically for many companies. But be wary of its effectiveness, or of becoming over reliant on such apps, as face-to-face collaboration still remains the best format for a complete free-flow of ideas.

4. Encourage collaboration between non-obvious departments. Studies have demonstrated that the best ideas often arise out of casual moments of contact between different sectors within the same company. The reasons for which are obvious: an objective observer would no doubt have a fresher, more distinct perspective on a situation than those who have been buried in it for some time. Try asking for suggestions from someone you wouldn’t usually — who knows, they might share your music taste, too.

5. Eliminate unnecessary meetings. On nearly every to-do list around the world there are tasks that require prolonged periods of deep concentration if they are to be done well. This means that staff will work much faster and more creatively if they are left alone, uninterrupted, for two or three or four hours — enabling them to immerse themselves in their tasks, and potentially uncovering unexpected ideas. In this context, organized meetings can be just as disruptive as an office chatter-box, so try to keep them to a minimum. By maintaining good communication on a daily basis, and being honest as to whether a meeting is really needed — as opposed to a quick email or Slack update — you may find that you can almost eliminate the need for meetings altogether if your team is small enough.

For this feature’s Spotify playlist, each member of our team shares their favorite music to work to. Please feel free to get in touch about successful office playlists, headphone etiquette revelations, or your favorite Slack functions (such as this service bot, which will order ice cream for the team).