Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Without co-workers watching, will we do our best work?


Published on October 26, 2020

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When you think about it, the pre-coronavirus office basically operated on a buddy system.

No matter your role, there was always an expectation that the work you were doing would be seen (or at least noticed) by someone else around you. It was a shared ecosystem where good work could be seen and quickly celebrated (in theory). We were all in each other’s orbit, and common wisdom suggested that it kept everyone balanced and moving.

If the average office from a year ago was a cluster of orbiting satellites, the COVID-19 pandemic was essentially the big bang that scattered us to our own corners of the universe. We’re our own planets now, with new challenges in our daily orbit. 

Space metaphors aside, this brings us to yet another massive challenge to our assumptions of what made workers productive: If left to our own devices without an in-person buddy system, will we still produce the same level of work? If a tree falls in a forest and no one was on the Zoom call, did it really happen?

Unsurprisingly, the science is pretty mixed on this topic. So let’s start with an emphatic maybe and go from there.

Stranger than fiction

In February of 1989, a Siena College student contracted measles while abroad in Puerto Rico and brought it back to their Loudonville, N.Y. campus. The resulting outbreak of over two dozen cases quickly led to a shutdown of the entire school, putting their college basketball team in an interesting position. They were just about to host the NCAA North Atlantic Conference tournament after a stellar 13-1 season of regular play. What followed was legendary before this year: athletes competing in an empty arena.

Siena played nine games in total with no spectators in the stands, ultimately becoming NAC Division champions for the first time in their school’s history. For more than 20 years, a question has hung around that moment: Did playing in an empty arena make the players better? As soon as they advanced to the March Madness tournament, the team was eliminated, adding even more credence to the power of a crowd-less arena. Of course, it was a one-off event, unlikely to be repeated or seen again; sports fans would just have to debate that bit of trivia indefinitely.

Then 2020 entered the chat.

From baseball to basketball to award shows, this year has already given us hundreds of examples of high-intensity athletes and performers doing their thing in front of empty seats. Seth Meyers spent months telling jokes to a camera in his empty attic, Drake shot a new music video set entirely in his palatial condo, and stadiums that once held thousands are filled with cardboard cutouts, video walls, and mannequins

If the idea that a crowdless arena leads to better performance were true, wouldn’t every athlete in the world benefit from this new status quo? No hecklers in the audience, no fans screaming for you to fail; they could focus on being excellent. Instead, we’ve rushed to replicate the in-person experience as much as possible, and it’s still unclear who really benefits. Athletes, superstitious even at the best of times, could simply have pushed for an environment closer to the ones they were accustomed to. It could even be for fans at home; watching the best basketball players in the world engage in silent and empty pre-playoff games in August almost bordered on the surreal.

It’s hard not to look at these athletes and celebrities struggle to find a system that works for them and not feel an immediate sense of kinship. Everyone is winging it, learning, and adjusting on the fly. But the question remains: Is anyone doing their best work in isolated situations? How would we know, and could we fix it even if we wanted to?

An all-new balancing act

A 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University became the newest data point in the ongoing discussion around the relationship between observation and productivity. In the experiment, participants were asked to play a video game that required them to move around and use their entire body to succeed. They played the game both alone and in front of a small audience; when they were being watched, the participants scored an average of 5 to 20 percent better in the game. Case closed, right?

Not exactly. The study’s author, Vikram Chib, even acknowledged a huge variable: "Here, people with social anxiety tended to perform better, but at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one's anxiety... we still need to figure that out."

So an audience either makes you demonstrably better or demonstrably worse. Which, in turn, leads us right back to square one. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, but neither is the nature of productivity itself. Many types of work are not improved by a gang of spectators, while others are much harder to pull off in isolation. The key to finding the sweet spot for remote work then could come from identifying those factors in yourself and your team and creating ways for everyone’s needs to be addressed.

Like so many other parts of our society, we have a real chance to rebuild something that works even better for more people than ever before. So, let’s get to thinking: What would distributed work look like if it gave us the best of both worlds? What does your team’s version of the NBA bubble look like?

A sign that read “Super busy right now, Steve” would've been bad form in an office, but it’s all-but-normalized when we communicate through emojis and status messages. 

Better together, better alone

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Open offices have been scientifically proven to make everyone working in them less productive. The reasons are obvious: With no way to really duck into a secluded place for more focus-heavy tasks, every worker is at the whim of any distraction that happens around them. Simultaneously, that easy access to the rest of your team makes them better (in theory) for collaboration and quickly sharing information or updates.

All work can broadly be defined across two categories: individual and collaborative. We do both kinds of tasks each day, and our needs for them can be entirely different or almost identical. For instance, you could be someone who can crunch hours of spreadsheets in a busy coffee shop and then immediately hop onto a client call.

By 2014, 70% of all workspaces had open office plans; two out of three people worked in one before COVID-19 hit. Above all else, open-concept spaces seem to favor Collaborative-style workers over anything else. It’s easy for managers to maintain a top-down view of the day’s events, and easier for a single employee to be found and roped into a last-minute meeting. But what about the Individual-style people, who crave a room of their own to get things done without distraction?

It turns out, open offices had something for them as well: HBR found that in open-plan offices, face-to-face interactions went down by 70%, while email messaging increased by 50%. Any gains in interpersonal collaboration are pretty much nullified by the fact that people cannot choose when and how they collaborate. The majority of workers throw on noise-canceling headphones and create a bubble in a crowd. It’s, quite simply, the worst of both worlds for anyone seeking a balance between both styles of work.

Choose your own adventure

There are times where we want, or at the very least expect, all eyes to be on us. Imagine a Zoom call where you’re the only one on video; sounds vaguely terrifying, right? But everyone’s threshold for distraction is different and generally misunderstood by others; it takes most people around 23 minutes to get back in the zone after a serious distraction from your workflow. A neon sign that read "SUPER BUSY RIGHT NOW, STEVE" would've been considered bad form in an office, but it’s all-but-normalized when we communicate through emojis and status messages. 

So it ultimately seems like it’s never been an issue of whether or not an audience always makes someone work harder, but about expectations and context. If we expect and desire an audience, either through precedent or personal work styles, that will make us better. The opposite is true as well, which makes this an extremely personal problem to solve. Luckily, we all have a surplus of time to figure ourselves out and fine-tune the most balanced approach going forward.

Distributed work makes it easier, in theory, to create digital boundaries for individual tasks; you’re always a few clicks away from an oasis of muted notifications and clear “Do Not Disturb” displays. When everyone is distributed, a rapid-fire series of DMs or a blinking notifications icon can be just as distracting as an in-person interruption. It might even serve you well to schedule dedicated “dark zone” slots on your calendar, where you minimize all your external distractions and dedicate yourself to some focused individual work. 

If you’ve been working from home, odds are you’ve probably found your own way to give yourself alone time by now. For some, you might have too much of it! This is where you get to lean into your own needs and create something new: “watercooler” video time with your team, weekly 1:1 coffee breaks, or something else entirely unique. What could meaningful collaborative time look like to you, and how would it help?

Accountability without an audience

The science behind whether observation is a fail-proof way to ratchet up productivity is nowhere near definitive. Still, it does highlight another established truth about what makes us work smarter and sharper: accountability. There’s a direct link between holding yourself accountable to your goals (both internally and externally) and seeing results. And the very act of collaborating with your team means that you’ve been made accountable to each other. Having an honest, purpose-driven discussion about the task at hand is the quickest way to let your team know your goals and intention, and vice-versa.

It’s all about intention: Be clear about what everyone can expect from a meeting, and they’re more likely to bring the right mindset along when they arrive. From freeform brainstorms where banter is welcome to more focused talks on specific problems, you can collaborate when you want, how you want, and with people who want to do the same.

It’s shockingly easy to become your own satellite during distributed work. But remember, not every meeting needs to be 100% productivity focused; if you need a quick call just to reconnect and feel less isolated, that’s completely justified. Likewise, it’s just as easy for some to watch the hours melt away jumping from conference call to conference call; on teams where accountability is normalized, it’s equally justified to ask what the purpose of a meeting is before it eats your entire day.

With some self-analysis and communication, you can strike the perfect balance between those two extremes so you can create your best work. No matter how distributed your office is in the future, these tools will be worth carrying with you.