Why casual chats at the coffee point are central to productivity

Social interaction isn’t just the icing on the cake – encounters on the stairs or at the watercooler can help companies to innovate, says Kristi Woolsey of Boston Consulting Group in an exclusive interview with the Smart Coffee Break, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners

Planned and unplanned social interaction will not only be central to company productivity but will also be one of the main reasons why we’ll still need physical offices in a hybrid future of work.

That’s the view of American architect, behavioural scientist and associate director of Boston Consulting Group, Kristi Woolsey, who believes that ‘people will come to the office for connection, collaboration and affiliation’ in the post Covid-19 era. She explains: ‘The most important spaces are going to be these social spaces where you can have more planned and unplanned interactions.’

Speaking to WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners, Woolsey talks about the value of random or serendipitous encounters to company innovation and productivity. Such unplanned interactions, she says, enable people to ‘join the dots on previously unconnected ideas’.

Encounters more significant

Woolsey accepts that ‘engineering serendipity has been part of the workplace for quite a bit, where we deliberately put two departments next to each other by having them share a coffee pot so that they will need to interact.’ In the hybrid working world, however, such encounters are set to take on more significance. As there will no longer be daily mandatory attendance at the office, social interactions will need to be carefully curated so that the right people meet at the right time.

‘The number one correlating factor for team productivity is social cohesion …’

While management consultants and architect firms are familiar with the value of social encounters, many businesses have yet to get the message. Woolsey accepts that ‘people in general  tend to think of social interaction in the office as the frosting on the cake – if we have to get rid of something, let’s get rid of social interaction.’

However she explains that ‘there was actually a study done that looked at more than 800 research papers and projects about productivity and found that the number one correlating factor for team productivity was social cohesion. So it seems that if you want your people to be more productive, building social cohesion is a critical piece of that.’

Collision coefficient

So seriously does Boston Consulting Group take the need for serendipitous encounters that the company created a special metric – a ‘collision coefficient’ –  for its New York office. Woolsey describes this experiment in the podcast: ‘Our New York office had six floors, and we know that when people get in the elevator they all face the same direction and they rarely talk to each other. This is not good for unplanned collisions, so we ended up putting in wide open staircases between floors to make it really easy to continue a conversation as you move from place to place.’

The main landing floor in Boston Consulting Group’s New York office was designed as a large coffee lounge rather than as a standard reception area with a desk. The firm captured data on social collisions using sociometric devises hung around the neck and was able to favourably compare the number of collisions in the new office with the number in the old one.

Demographic dimension

There is even a demographic dimension to accepting social interaction at work, suggests Kristi Woolsey: ‘What we’re finding is that younger people are willing to participate in planned social events in greater numbers even when there is no work benefit … more senior stakeholders are not going to come into the office for a happy hour, but they will come into the office for some kind of work followed by a happy hour.’

‘We need to plan some in-person events even for the fully remote people…’

Woolsey has identified four different typologies of knowledge workers in the hybrid world of work – from completely office-based to fully remote. Each typology needs to feel part of a socially cohesive organisation. She explains: ‘We need to plan some in-person events even for the fully remote people and we need to make ways for people to connect with each other, whether it’s a watercooler chat channel or five minutes at the beginning of every meeting which is set aside for a personal sharing.’

You can listen to the full interview with Kristi Woolsey of Boston Consulting Group here.

It is the fifth programme in the six-part Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work. It follows interviews with: Despina Katsikakis of Cushman & Wakefield on the evolution of office productivity; Adelaide-based neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr on flow and focus; Simon French, Workplace and Design Director at GSK, on optimising team performance; and with San Francisco-based workplace designer Primo Orpilla of Studio of Studio O+A on team-to-team interaction in Silicon Valley.

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