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Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation? There’s no evidence of it. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Do chance meetings at the office boost innovation? There’s no evidence of it.

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When Yahoo banned working from home in 2013, the reason was one often cited in corporate America: Being in the office is essential for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.

“It is critical that we are all present in our offices,” wrote Jacqueline Reses, then a Yahoo executive, in a staff memo. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

Today, Ms. Reses, now chief executive of Post House Capital, an investment firm, has a different view. “Would I write that memo differently now?” she said. “Oh yeah.” She says she still believes that collaboration can benefit from being together in person, but that over the last year, people found new, better ways to work.

As the pandemic winds down in the United States, however, many bosses are sounding a note similar to Ms. Reses’ in 2013. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” said Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.” Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”

Yet people who study the issue say there is no evidence that working in person is essential for creativity and collaboration. It may even hurt innovation, they say, because the demand for doing office work at a prescribed time and place is a big reason that the American workplace has been inhospitable for many people.

“That’s led to a lot of the outcomes we see in the modern office environment — long hours, burnout, the lack of representation — because that office culture is set up for the advantage of the few, not the many,” said Dan Spaulding, chief people officer at Zillow, a real estate marketplace.

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”


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