January 29th 2019
I am sitting in a local branch of one of the popular coffee chains in London and as I look up from my laptop, I am greeted by a sea of heads all looking at their laptops / smart phones / devices. No one is talking to anyone. Everyone is on their own and all seem terribly busy with whatever work they are doing (I am sure it is very important work). All heads are down, everyone is focused, no one is looking at anyone – the barrier to any human interaction is firmly up. DO NOT TALK TO ME. In fact, there is a guy who has gone one step further and has put his over-ear headphones on. SERIOUSLY DO NOT TALK TO ME. The question that comes to mind is why are we all here, in this coffee shop? If we want to be alone, why not just WFH (work from home). Why come to a place that is all about social interaction when that is clearly not on the agenda?
I know in this age, that virtual working and virtual teams are the new normal but has virtual become our new reality? Has the need for flexibility and the amazing advances in technology driven us to become more solitary and insular? I mean, why talk to someone when you can WhatsApp, text, email, Facebook message – you get my drift.
As an organisational psychologist I am deeply interested in productivity in the workplace, so I am wondering how this new reality of working virtually affects productivity (if at all) and why people choose a coffee shop as their workplace.
In their study ‘The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress’, Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke, found that workers compensate for workplace interruptions by working faster, but this leads to an increase in stress and higher frustration. Virtual working solves for this and as a result can lead to an increase in productivity and decrease in stress.
Research by the University of Calgary, Faculty of Kinesiology, said, that individuals given a specific task are slowed when witnessing someone perform a different task nearby. The researcher, Dr. Tim Welsh says that regardless of their intentions, having an individual working on a different task – within your field of vision – could be enough to slow down your performance. Suggesting that virtual workers are faster workers.
Even some of the big brands attribute increased productivity to virtual working. Best Buy credited a boost in productivity of 35% to their flexible work programme and British Telecom estimated that productivity increased by 20% through virtual working. (source: Forbes.com).
This is all remarkably interesting, but it doesn’t take into account that humans are by nature social animals. To quote the famous American surgeon, writer and public health researcher, Atul Gawande “Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”
So, if virtual working is better for productivity, yet we need social interaction to exist, maybe, just maybe, the fact that we are all working on our own (some with headphones on) in a coffee shop is our attempt to pull off this balancing act.
It’s like chocolate (feel free to substitute with your favourite thing, guilty pleasure or vice). One may not want to partake in the chocolate, but just knowing that it is there, is enough. That is why I am here. Also, I really like the almond latte and that has just made me think that maybe they do too and that is why they are here.