Flow — Why Remote Team Meetings Fall Short
Hybrid work isn’t going anywhere, and the return to historic levels of in-office work and daily attendance is not anywhere on the horizon as far as I can tell — and for good reason.
The utility of knowledge-based work can be done from anywhere. The proliferation of high speed internet, Wi-Fi, and cloud-based applications coupled with the affordability of fairly high-quality cameras, microphones and screens mean that most people can afford to outfit a home office in a way that allows them to complete most if not all of their work without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.
However, I don’t believe that utility is the benchmark we should be aspiring to meet. The question isn’t, “Where can the work be done?”, but rather, “Where is the work done best?
To quote architect David DeWayne, “What kind of space triggers the right kinds of relationships or puts you with other people or puts you in the right mindset to do what it is you were meant to do, better?”
(My February 2020 interview with David is here.)
It’s the difference between functional space and performative space, and its the reason that the office likely won’t go anywhere, although it will eventually evolve. The evolution will be driven through human behavior, and just as natural selection elevates traits that improve a species fitness, the office evolution will be driven by the elevation of activities done better in a purpose built space or with other people face to face.
A lot of my writing to this point has proposed that meetings that involve collaboration, creativity and innovation benefit from in person interaction. Many people believe that remote tools can create this dynamic just as effectively, but I disagree. Why? Well it all boils down to something called “flow.”
Before you argue that flow isn’t a scientific phenomena that can be predicted or engineered for, let me tell you that there is a lot of research around flow, originally stemming from sports and then being extended into the workplace.
This research defines the common attributes of environments that create flow, both in individuals, and in teams, and I believe it helps us draw some conclusions about the types of environments the modern office should focus on.
According to the article on flow, “individual experiences of flow arise from a set of circumstances created, maintained, and eventually terminated by the individual.” This means that for individual tasks, someone with the right resources could customize their home environments to achieve flow and many have. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those with limited space and resources may have a harder time achieving flow in their personal environment. This is in line with some of the studies that showed younger professionals, despite their affinity to technology, struggled more with full remote work during the pandemic because many shared living space with roommates and had little ability to create dedicated space for work.
Team flow is defined slightly differently.
“Team flow is defined as a shared experience of flow derived from an optimized team dynamic during the execution of interdependent personal tasks.”
There are some core components to creating this type of flow. I would argue that a few of the components are substantially harder to achieve remotely than in person.
The first of these is a sense of unity. Even with advancements in hybrid platforms, meeting equity and collaboration software, there is a difference between being in the room and not. According to the study,
“In accepting the shared goals of the team, joining with the collective effort, and investing in the cohesion of the team, one also necessarily loses a sense of oneself as actor (i.e., loss of reflective self-consciousness) both at the individual level and at the team level by subordinating one’s identity to that of the collective (what Sawyer [Citation2007] calls a blending of egos, and which is enhanced by optimal experiences in that team.”
Hybrid platforms make it difficult to lose a “sense of oneself,” and in fact, being on camera and seeing yourself on the screen actually makes you hyperaware of yourself and your actions.
The second attribute that may be problematic in a hybrid environment is holistic focus.
“Team-level holistic focus is classified as a characteristic of team flow and characterized by (a) all team members concentrating on the task at hand, (b) complete alignment of each of those tasks to the common goal, and consequently (c) complete focus of the team as a whole on its common goal to the extent that the entire team loses track of time.”
A purpose-built environment can help mitigate distractions, where six team members working from six different locations amplifies the potential for distractions and interruptions. I’d also argue that the potential to lose track of time while staring at a screen with a clock in the bottom corner may be problematic as well.
Safety is also a key component of creating team flow. Safety requires a high level of confidence that the team has the resources and skills to complete the task at hand, and in team flow, that safety is achieved through the complimentary strengths of the individual members of the team. Combined with another component, mutual trust, flow is achieved by knowing each member is accountable for performing the tasks they’re best suited for to reach the common goal. This can be harder to achieve in remote environments and may be even harder in asynchronous situations where the work is being done by individuals at different times in different locations.
However, if you can engineer an environment to achieve team flow, there are benefits to the business, to the work itself, and for the individuals as well.
“Team flow will result in [what Hackman and Wageman (Citation2005) consider to be] greater team effectiveness in terms of productive output, better use of social processes in the context of carrying out the work, and higher personal well-being for individual team members. Considering the positive outcomes of experiencing flow as part of a team, flow gives team members at work an opportunity to maximize their potential to succeed.”
Couple these insights on flow with the research behind activity based working, (the fact that different postures promote different modes of thinking), and you quickly realize that doing every task in the same environment is not ideal.
Then add in the fact that the ideal commute is not actually zero minutes but rather 15 minutes, (it allows the brain to switch modes from domestic to work) and that the scourge of back to back to back remote meetings actually amplifies stress and decreases productivity, and you have quite a mountain of data to support creating spaces specifically for creative collaboration, problem solving, decision making, and R&D.
So there you have it, a little bit of science behind why meeting in person for team based work can create team flow that elevates the work product as well as the individual team members.
Oh, and it’s based on research done BEFORE the pandemic, and not by a real estate firm, technology company, or furniture manufacturer with a vested interest in today’s return to work conundrum, which I think makes it all the more relevant.