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How companies can reinvigorate collaboration post-COVID

March 21, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC
Business people return back to work after covid-19 pandemic
COVID-19 has had a negative impact on collaboration with so many working from home, writes Diane Hoskins.
Luis Alvarez—Getty Images

When the pandemic forced most of us to relocate from our traditional work environments to makeshift home offices, we quickly adapted to make the best of a constantly changing situation. The workplace had been evolving already, but this abrupt shift provided us with the opportunity to test the virtual office environment’s effectiveness on a large scale.

According to recent Gensler research, the dramatic shift toward work from home during the pandemic has dealt a significant blow to collaboration. The startling decline in collaboration from 2019 to 2020 signals that there could be considerable downside to working environments that are entirely virtual. This new finding offers warning signs for businesses that are in the process of planning how they will return to the office. (As a design and architecture firm, Gensler advises clients on work environments, including returning to physical offices.)

Gensler has tracked workplace needs and behaviors for over 15 years—including multiple studies conducted in 2020 that provide data from both before and during the COVID crisis. Before the pandemic, U.S. workers spent an average of 43% of their workweeks collaborating either virtually or in person. That number fell to 27% for workers who worked from home in 2020. 

This means that people working full-time at home spent 37% less time collaborating than before the pandemic.

Gensler Workplace Survey Graphic 1
Courtesy of Gensler

These findings reveal how working from home has thrown businesses out of balance. Typically, high-performing people at top companies tend to do individual work and collaborative work in equal measures—45% each, according to our research, with the remaining 10% made up of learning and social time. This near-equal proportion of individual and collaborative work meets the speed and agility required for dynamic organizations in today’s marketplace.

During the quarantine, the numbers were far different. While at home during the pandemic, people reported working in individual focus mode 62% of the time and 27% in collaboration, a disparity that negatively impacts company creativity and productivity.

Researchers have measured and documented the importance of collaboration for several decades. As summarized in a 2014 Deloitte report on the collaborative economy, the business benefits of collaboration can be measured and defined in six critical areas: speed, quality of work, innovation and new ideas, employee engagement, growth, and profitability. Collaborative work-styles increase all of these factors.

Gensler Workplace Survey Graphic 2
Courtesy of Gensler

So what should the new workplace model look like?

Many hybrid solutions suggest a mix of in-office and at-home days during the week, but it may not be that simple. Focus work and collaboration for most people are both formal and informal, scheduled and unscheduled. These modes can vary by the hour throughout the day, and the mix can be different each day of the week. Hybrid models with workdays assigned as being entirely composed of either collaboration or focus do not support the normal cycle of planned and informal interactions necessary to get work done. We recommend crafting, studying, and testing hybrid strategies before implementation to achieve the right balance.

A balanced design that supports both collaboration and focus can expand an organization’s capabilities and competitive advantage. As we rethink our workplaces in this way, the collaboration economy could be on track to achieve levels of innovation and growth beyond pre-COVID benchmarks.

Diane Hoskins is co-CEO of Gensler.