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Reimagining the Workplace for Innovators
Dr. Anne-Laure Fayard, Associate Professor of Innovation, Design and Organizational Studies at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Dr. Anne-Laure Fayard has spent her career studying collaboration and the best environments for fostering innovation. This is the very social science we need to tap into as we reimagine a workplace that's better than the one we left behind. In this episode, Dr. Fayard shares why "proximity, privacy and permission" are crucial to collaborative workspaces - and why inclusion and a culture of trust drive innovation. She also offers some practical advice for leaders transitioning their teams into the post-pandemic world.

Dr. Anne-Laure Fayard, Associate Professor of Innovation, Design and Organizational Studies at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering

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Show Notes

Mitch Zuklie:

Welcome to The Future Fountain, a podcast series dedicated to conversations about the technology ecosystems, brought to you by Orrick and NYU Tandon Future Labs. I’m Mitch Zuklie, and today I am delighted to be talking with Dr. Anne-Laure Fayard, who is Associate Professor of Innovation, Design and Organizational Studies at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and affiliate faculty at NYU Stern School of Business. Dr. Fayard studies collaboration within and across teams to uncover the conditions that trigger innovation and new ideas. Her research involves design thinking, culture, workspace, social innovation and leadership. And I can’t think of a more valuable perspective as we all start to reimagine the new workplace. Dr. Fayard, thank you so much for sharing your insights today.

Dr. Fayard:

Thank you for inviting me.

Mitch:

We’re delighted to have you. Would you mind if you could start by telling us about your work, and how you got interested in workplace design?

Dr. Fayard:

Yes, of course. So, I’m an ethnographer of work, and I’m really interested in collaboration, innovation and technology. And my interest in space and design goes back, in fact, to my first researcher position as I was finishing my PhD. That’s the late 90s when I was thinking about that, where I worked as a researcher for a part of a design project with air traffic controllers, where we were redesigning new tools for them. And so I had a role as an ethnographer and working with the rest of the team. And this project really framed my interest for design, or what we call today “design thinking.” And it also made me realize the importance of artifacts and space for work and collaboration.

My next project was on the impact of information technology on knowledge work, and this is really where I started collecting the data that led to my first article on the topic of space and informal collaboration. I was studying this big R&D center, and I realized that there were a lot of conversations taking place in copy rooms. You know, people help each other with copy machines; they don’t always work. But they also discussed projects, shared stories, gossiped. And so that kind of, I was like, “What’s going on there?” So I did two other studies in two very different sites, and found very different patterns and uses of space. And so this really led me to the question, “Why the difference?” Since then I’ve been exploring, and I always have an ear and an eye up when I get into a space to see what’s going on.

Mitch:

So, out of curiosity, what was it that was magic about the copy room?

Dr. Fayard:

The copy room – they didn’t always trigger that informal collaboration, but those that did were located in kind of a central space so that people passing by could see that there were other people. There were other resources; usually there was a copy machine and some supplies, oftentimes the mail was there. So you could stop by for other reasons. It was enclosed, but with some openness, so it felt private but still people could see. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m peeking in the copy room to see who’s there.” Or, people thinking like, “What are you doing there?” And I think that just the fact that it was a copy room – and I think it’s the same thing, while it’s a bit different, for example, for coffee machines – but like with copier rooms, you start the job and you wait. And so you kind of look like you’re working because you’re by the copy room – it’s not like you’re by the coffee machine. And you don’t really have much to do, and you might even discuss what is being printed or copied. So, I think that all of these different things kind of made it a very interesting place to see all of these interactions.

Mitch:

That’s fascinating. As you think about all of the literature and knowledge of workplace design that you’ve accumulated, Dr. Fayard, since the 90s, as you describe, what do you think are the two or three most important insights that we should all know as we think about the transformation that we are about to face?

Dr. Fayard:

I think that there are a few things. One is, if you look at the history of offices, there’s a whole gamut of options that we have experimented with. You know, from private offices to cubicles, to open plan and hot desking. So, we have these whole sets of options, and we have people pushing for one and criticizing the other. But, if you look at, from our research, what we found when we were doing our first sets of studies was really that you needed a balance between proximity, privacy and permission. So, you need to have enough traffic. If it’s too far, at the end of the corridor, no one goes there. And if you’re being found talking to someone, it feels like, “Oh, they have a secret.” But if it’s too open, people don’t stop, because it’s like, “People might listen to me.” And so there’s been examples of big companies doing like this kind of like “mole”-style office. And what the studies show is that we might meet in kind of a big space, but if we’re having a conversation, we will then go for more of a private meeting room to continue our conversation. So that’s one thing. So, it’s a mix between proximity and privacy.

The last piece is permission. It’s like the organizational culture. There was a company, a management consultancy, and the CEO saw that a lot of the people were kind of lining up near the coffee shop nearby the office, so he decided to create this kind of very nice lounge kitchen area with super fancy coffee machines, but just next to his office. And people didn’t feel comfortable being seen there. And also because when we were talking with them, working for them was like, you had to be either at the client or sitting at your desk. But sitting on the sofa chatting with someone, or even with your laptop, didn’t look like work. So, I think it’s like this last piece is sometimes…you know people are like, “Oh, how do I fix…what’s the best…?” And it depends on what kind of work, what’s your culture, and what you’re trying to do? And I think that’s very specific to each organization. So that’s one thing.

I think also if you look at the research, kind of the trend in office design pre-pandemic, you could see that a lot of companies and architects and architectural firms were adding different function purpose spaces. So, you have the library for different head-down work, silent work. You had neighborhoods with HR, IT or marketing. You had phone booths so you could have that privacy. Or smaller meeting rooms, so you can have two or three people instead of having just the one big board room that everyone is trying to get in and it doesn’t work. You have a lot of variation, so we have a lot of these things. And then we also know a lot about remote work. We’ve been doing remote work for a long, long time. I always say, half-jokingly, the first distributed companies were East India Company and Hudson Bay Company in the 16th-17th century. And then, more recently, we’ve had a lot of successful companies who’ve done 100% remote work. Whether you think of GitHub, other ones that do 100%remote work. And so we can learn through them. That’s what came up from our research last summer is we’ve been doing it. You know, before Zoom, we had something called Skype, and people were doing that. In fact, at lot of, at least a knowledge worker – of course here that’s for certain types of work – but knowledge workers were already doing a lot of this hybrid work. So, hybrid work is not really new, but I think that the balance is just shifting, and it’s becoming more of a norm. But like a lot of people say, "Well, we’ve already done it.” So people knew how to do it.

Mitch:

So, that’s fascinating, because it does feel so new to many folks who have not been GitHub, or were actually even thinking about that model. It felt novel to many folks. But, based on your research, Dr. Fayard, is virtual or remote work good for innovation or bad for innovation, or is just not that simple?

Dr. Fayard:

I’m picking the third answer, it’s not that simple. Let’s leave the medium, whether we’re virtual or not on the table. What we need for innovation is diversity, multiple views, multiple disciplines or expertise. And then you need intersections; you need to be able to connect across. Because I can have a lot of diverse people – the world is full of diverse people – but they don’t always connect. It’s this idea of diversity or what I call informal or unstructured collaboration. So, it’s not necessarily about we’re working on a project together, but that we have a chance to start talking together. And then – and I think that’s the piece that we sometimes forget – we need time to make things happen and implement and trust. So, if you’re looking at innovation like there’s been a trend in the last, I don’t know, maybe decade, but there’s a trend on compression time for innovation. So think hackathon, make-a-thon sprints face-to-face, and now we are virtual since the pandemic. And then also all of the crowdsourcing for innovation platforms and challenges. All of these models, they try to bring diverse people together and squeeze time. And what the research shows is that you can have a lot of ideas generated. What we don’t really know, and usually we see that it’s not really happening, is are these ideas being implemented or piloted, at least. So, we can generate a lot, but then how do we move from a good idea to done in a week, 10 days, or maybe a month if you’re a part of some of these crowdsourcing platforms, to making it happen in the real world. And so I think again here, whether it’s virtual or not might not necessarily be different. I think it’s not so much the virtual or not the virtual –think about open source. It’s been studied all over as an example of innovation, and it’s completely online, although some of these do meet from time to time in conferences, so it’s like the same thing for the 100% remote companies. They’re 100% remote, but they make sure their employees still meet once a year to know each other and trust each other. I think the trust part we tend to forget, but it’s like super important.

Mitch:

Can I make sure I understood your answer, because I think it’s incredibly fascinating. What I heard was that whether you are virtual or face-to-face, it matters less than whether you have the magical ingredients of diversity, intersectionality – meaning a place where unstructured collaboration can happen – and you’ve got time, that’s what allows you to create the ideas. But then you also need an additional element, if I understood your answer, to actually take that idea and to implement it. And that requires some culture of trust. Is that a fair answer?

Dr. Fayard:

It’s time and trust. So it’s different types of time. You can compress, but then you also need a kind of longer timeframe. And I think that we have a lot of successful examples of squeezing or compressing time, and we think it’s great, and – I’m not saying that these ideas are not good, but we tend to forget what happens after.

Mitch:

Very helpful. And that concept of trust obviously also can’t be established instantly. That requires more time.

Dr. Fayard:

Exactly. And sometimes if you’re organizing these events, it’s thinking also who our department might help support. So, if you’re thinking Future Labs, you might have startups, but what do the startups need? Not only the space, the money, but they also need all the mentorship, the relationships and the connections. I think that’s a big piece – we tend to focus on generating the idea, but what happens after? We assume that is going to happen.

Mitch:

Taking that yellow sticky and making it actually happen is a hard journey. Very, very interesting. Can we pivot to a slightly different concept, which is size. Does scale matter? Is there an optimal size where you think it makes sense for a company to be in person versus virtual? Is that something that your research since the 90s had shed any light on?

Dr. Fayard:

There’s a fascinating study from the 70s from Tom Allen from MIT who showed that just being one floor apart reduced radically communication and collaboration. You’re not going up to see your colleague. And it’s a few meters away when you’re on that flat of the same floor. You won’t go to talk to someone. Then if you go to scale, you’re just reproducing that. So, it’s not so much of, you know…

Mitch:

Same problem at a bigger scale.

Dr. Fayard:

Yes. I think it’s like, you can be huge but then you need to have smaller offices. Or areas where people can meet. If you think about a conference, you can have 1,000people at a conference, but then people have sub-groups, sub-meetings.

Mitch:

Sure.

Dr. Fayard:

If you’re looking at any kind of organization, you’ll see that. I was talking with someone about hot desking. What happens is hot desking people all go to the same place, although it’s not done for that. Although you could triple the hot desking, but you will still have this convergence.

Mitch:

Is there a way to replicate the proximity, privacy and permission aspects you talked about online and virtually? Are there ways you can replicate that experience well? Can you do something like that?

Dr. Fayard:

Yeah, I think there are plenty of examples. I talked about the whole open-source movement. There are a lot of very successful online communities that have been doing some of that. I’ve been looking a lot also at these 100-person remote companies who have started about a decade ago. And they’ve been thinking a lot about, “How do we replicate that using…” whether it’s Slack or other kind of small messaging – having different types of media. So, you might have the video call, but then you have more chat-types of things, and you have forums and things like that. It was also interesting that the companies who were really good at shifting during the remote – I’m thinking of Frog Design, who has a studio in Dumbo – and it’s really interesting because they had this office manager who was in charge of making sure people would collaborate and meet each other. And when they went online, they started creating Slack channels, or like small activities competitions. Trying to think about what was happening in the office and replicating it virtually. So, I think that is feasible. I think one thing that came up from the research quite a lot is the issue of onboarding, which I think is really hard. I haven’t heard a perfect solution. I think that from the organization, everybody is worried about how you do this informal learning. And in fact, for a lot of companies who say that we need to get people back into the office, one of the main reasons is this informal learning that is taking place – really it’s apprenticeship that we do. And from the interviews we had during our research, people say – there was one person in particular, he’s saying that the company is doing really well but he didn’t have a sense of what the company was about. And then he also mentioned how difficult it was for him to ask questions. Because he said, “If I were sitting next to my colleagues, I would just turn my head and ask something, or I would even overhear what they were doing and get the answer without asking it.” Well, now you have to send an email…

Mitch:

There is no proximity or privacy.

Dr. Fayard:

So I could imagine you could create probably some kind of online chat or community forums where you could peek at what people are saying. I imagine that we might learn… People who use servers, I’m not using that, but I’ve heard a lot of students using Discord, where you create your own servers. So, you could imagine doing these kinds of things where you could use technology like this and eavesdrop. Because I think that’s what these students are doing. They’re doing something and they’re listening to what’s going on in the background. So, it might be generational, and we might get there. I still think we are embodied animals. We can live with 2D, but it’s nice to look at people in 3D. And there’s a lot of things. And, I think all the recent surveys on mental health and sense of isolation kind of reflects this still, a need for embodiment.

Mitch:

Incredibly helpful. As we think about physical space then, going back to your 3D concept, what do you think a future of the open floor plan will be in businesses? Is that a model in post-pandemic that will be as popular as it once was, or no?

Dr. Fayard:

It depends on what you call open plan. If it’s like the complete open plan, which is more like a hot desking-type of thing, probably not, but there were already quite a bit of criticisms around that kind of model pre-pandemic. I think that, as I said, there’s been a trend of having more neighborhoods and different function spaces still being open…

Mitch:

Purpose-driven rooms.

Dr. Fayard:

That I think we will see. You know, one of the spaces we looked at was the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne. They redesigned their office before the pandemic, but it’s interesting that, I think that helped them be successful in shifting everybody remote. And I think that as they will move back, all the thinking they put into making sure that people can connect and have more of an informal relationship. Because then I think that what we’re thinking of is that what we’re doing in the office is not what we used to be thinking we were supposed to be doing. Because I’m not sure we were necessarily doing that. But the view – and I think that’s why everybody was surprised – was that, “Oh, we can work away from the office.” But what we found in our studies before is a lot of people were like, “Oh, I go early, or late, when there’s no one so that I can do work.” Or people saying that they would stay, or take a day off or stay working from home or going to a coffee shop to do work, or to do heads-down – sometimes they call it head down work, So all the other things that we were doing is a form of work, but it wasn’t seen as work. And, so I think that’s the thing that the office space needs to be nurturing. An extra thing that we need to be thinking of is if we’re hybrid in that some people will be remote, how can we make sure that they would not be left out because they’re remote. So, there’s, I guess, some tech infrastructure to be thinking of. But companies were already using Slack, so I guess if you are using Slack at office or Slack at home it doesn’t really matter. Talking recently with a few companies, I think the big issue is how do we make video calls fluid so that if you’re at home and everybody else is in the office you don’t feel like you’re this weird person on the big screen. Or you don’t want to spend 20minutes logging in [when you could be] getting things done. So, some of it would be tech infrastructure. Some of it might be just also plain more norms. So like, if two people are out, or even one person is, everybody is on video, even if you are co-located, so we don’t create this in-and-out kind of thing.

Mitch:

Do you think that’s how the norm will develop? That if it’s one person who is remote, everyone will go on the computer? Is that your best sense of what will happen?

Dr. Fayard:

I don’t know. I know that some companies are looking at that and trying to think. I think that people will have to get started. I mean, what I heard also is a lot of people who suddenly become more aware of what it meant to the people who were already remote. So if you had global companies with, like, two people outside of whatever was their country, and they realized they tend to forget about them, and they were telling me, “Now we realize what it means to be not connected.” So I think people might be coming up with new modes or rules – either it’s everybody is on their computer so they can work, or it’s redesigning spaces so it’s easier to integrate people. I don’t know if it would be robots with little video screens, or if it would be smaller screens that can come up so not like the big screen that’s just out there. Just thinking about that, I was teaching yesterday, I had one student who couldn’t make it, I teach in person. I felt really bad for him, he was on this big screen with all of us there. And it was hard for him to interact. And then when he was talking, everyone was looking at him. I think that at the end of the day it’s like experimentation and learning. And I think that for, in the context of Future Labs, where you have all of these startups, the essence of what they’ve been doing is like experimenting, iterating. And so, it’s what everybody is going to have to do, I think, with hybrid work because it will vary so much in terms of, like you say, scales, types of work and work culture. But yeah, it’s going to be interesting, I think. Many fascinating years of trial, error and hopefully successes.

Mitch:

As we think about what’s next, aside from the GitHubs of the world, for the most part most businesses were in person, and then suddenly they weren’t. And pretty much all at once, we were forced to go to remote work. I imagine that the return to work, whether it’s a hybrid model or otherwise, will be much more gradual and much more individual, and I’m curious what advice you have for founders as they start thinking about transitioning this summer to more in-person activity. How might they think about the pace of doing that, or what consideration should they give to thinking about a gradual return, or a non-gradual return? What advice do you have around that?

Dr. Fayard:

I’m going to tell you one story, then give you a few guidelines. Last summer, I was talking with a small innovation boutique-type of consultancy in Paris. They were about between 30-40people. And at that time France was reopening. People had enjoyed being remote, so they were debating among their founders whether they should ask people to come back or not, how many days a week they should be asking people to come back. The CEO had that sentence, he said, we can keep working like this because we’ve done it for the last three or four months and it keeps working. But, in a year from now our company will be dead. And by that what he meant is that the culture and the connections and the trust won’t be there. And so I think the rest of the team went with his advice and they say that they realized it was really important, so I think they asked people to come at least once a day and then be left flexibility. They tried to make people come back at least once a day, so I felt for me that quote was really interesting because it was really realizing how its base efficiency and productivity but it might disappear if we focus only on the efficiency and productivity. But that kind of a story – I think one is experimentation, so being ready to get started and shift back if something doesn’t work. Flexibility, so it’s recognizing that there are different needs. So, Frog Design when the pandemic started, did a whole series of surveys with their employees because they wanted to know what was their situation and how did they feel about it, and I think they are doing a second round now. I think that being aware of the different needs of people is really important. But they discovered it was not necessarily the people they thought wanted to be back who wanted to be back, and the reason they wanted to be back was different. I think when I say flexibility, it’s realizing that you might think as the founder that coming back to the office two days a week is quite good and that it leaves you some flexibility to be from home because you know that works well, you have a home office all set up, but you might have people who are in a small studio room and they just can’t bear it anymore and they want to see people.

Mitch:

Roommates.

Dr. Fayard:

Exactly, roommates – you can have someone that has roommates or who stay at home with family or have kids. Who want to get out because they want to have their own time. I mean, it was really interesting to see how people say, “I want to commute.” We all complain about commuting, but then suddenly commuting was this kind of buffer we had in our lives to mark the distinction between work and office. So I think flexibility with an understanding of the different needs and being to being able to do that. And then role modeling – if you want people to come back the office and then you pack them up with meetings from 9 to 6 nonstop, then they’re going to be thinking…well first they’re going to be thinking “But for real?” You’re not going to have anything that you need to have from the office. Because people will just be running, you know they can just do that from Zoom or team or whatever is the platform they’re using. So, I would say flexibility, inclusion, experimentation and role modeling for me would be the big piece.

Mitch:

Very helpful. Let’s pause if we can and explore that piece of it more. So I think we all know that dispersion can be a threat to diversity and inclusion. I’d be curious what recommendations you have in designing a hybrid or even an all-remote model, to make it more fully inclusive. Are there habits and intentions which allies need to adopt in order to be thoughtful about this? What can you share with us around that issue of inclusion?

Dr. Fayard:

If you think of diversity, a lot of the companies were saying that they were going to be fully remote so that they then can also hire a more diverse group, because you didn’t need to be in an expensive city you could still be working for them. But the hopeful element of it – I think the over positive or potential is dispersion could increase a sense of isolation. But also in some cases might take away some of the differences that we see. And so it could be an equalizer in some cases. Because I am just the person who is doing the work, you don’t necessarily see me, with all my background or things like that. So you could imagine a positive version of it.

Mitch:

Yes.

Dr. Fayard:

But the reality is I was reading a study for students getting into the workforce and how there was a huge limitation in terms of access to technology. Or even feeling comfortable using technology. So I think thinking about access to technology, making sure that everybody has the right WiFi or laptop. Just a setup to be working from home. So it could be having allowances, particularly if you’re paying less on your real estate, why not using it for your employees? Talking about flexibility could be also, and I‘ve seen companies doing that where you could rent a space, you know co-working space, that would be another option. When you remote, I think also it’s a question about do you put the video on or not?

Mitch:

That’s right.

Dr. Fayard:

And that’s something comes out a lot also in teaching. Of course, when you teach remotely you would want everybody to have their camera on. But very quickly I realized when we had a conversation at NYU that some people might feel uncomfortable because of their context, their setting they are in. So I stopped doing it, but I still hear it sometimes and always remind people that it’s not because people are not interested or that they’re not engaged; it might be for other reasons. It could be also giving people resources to be part of the conversation. And it goes back to this point we were making about whether people would want to go back or not. And it might be a lot of interesting things. I mean I was also reading recently vaccines are also going to be a big issue.

Mitch:

Right

Dr. Fayard:

I think there is a lot of ethical issues that are going to be coming up. I think it’s an opportunity for us and for companies to be more mindful and make sure that as they are redesigning new forms of work they are more inclusive, but that requires mindfulness, and I guess also including different stakeholders. Because we all have assumptions and that’s fine, that’s part of human beings, but also making sure that we give everybody a voice in that conversation. And I think I’ve seen more and more companies realizing that and trying to include their different stakeholders.

Mitch:

Thank you very much, as I said there’s a rich topic there that I think we’ll be exploring years to come.

Dr. Fayard:

Yes.

Mitch:

Could you share your sense – are you optimistic about the new workplace? Do you think that we’ll come out of Covid with a more thoughtful approach to the workplace or not?

Dr. Fayard:

I’ve been asked that question often and I always have this part of me where I don’t know if I’m optimistic but I think there’s a possibility and a potential, and so I’m hopeful that people will use that opportunity. I think that one thing that is different from before is that I think the Covid crisis unveiled a lot of issues with other things happening at the same time. But kind of reinforced this thing, I think gave voice to people, so when we went to lock down and fully remote, and some companies started using technology to prevail. There was a lot of push back. Similarly, now people are voicing their willingness to go back or not. So I think that we have this interesting moment where people have a voice. What I was also talking to a few people about, currently a lot of employees are just sticking with their jobs because feel like, “At least I have a job.” But I think that as things are hopefully moving a bit more positively, people might be saying, “If you treat me like this, I don’t want to work here anymore.” Again, it goes back to the inclusion. It might be that some people might be in a better position to say “I can choose” than others. So yeah, I’m not 100% optimistic because we know from history human beings are good at going back to their old norms. But I think that if enough people are careful and mindful and use this as a call for action, I’m hopeful that we can get to something better than worse. It’d be really bad if we spend this whole morbid year and a half, and we don’t get anything better from that.

Mitch:

We’ll that’s a hopeful note on which to end. Dr. Fayard you’ve given us so much to think about. You’ve covered Hudson Bay Company, GitHub , Future Labs, Skype, Zoom, Open Source, Open Floor, Slack. Whether you turn cameras on, turn cameras off. And finally, the hope that we will use the lessons from these last 18 months to make something better. Thank you so much. I hope that we can convince you to come back in a year to assess whether we’ve invested this time wisely. Thank you enormously for joining us on Future Fountain. It’s just been a complete pleasure.

Dr. Fayard:

Thank you very much for having me.