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No technology can replace the coffee break

Spontaneous and informal meetings make us more creative. Digital solutions for remote work cannot replace having a coffee with good colleagues.

Photo of two people meeting over a cup of coffee.
“Knowledge and knowledge sharing are crucial in times of fundamental changes in the workplace due to technological developments," says Øystein Tønnessen. (Illustration photo)

“Coffee talks serve several functions. They help build trust between colleagues, promote inclusion, foster relationships in the workplace, and lead to informal sharing of knowledge.”

This is according to Øystein Tønnessen, who recently defended his PhD at the School of Business and Law at the University of Agder (UiA). His research includes topics such as home office, hybrid office solutions, and creativity.

Since the pandemic, many companies have experimented with virtual coffee talks. You may have met your colleagues over a screen on a Monday morning, with little else on the agenda than to say “good morning.” But it is a poor substitute for the real thing.

“Even technology optimists acknowledge that no technology can replace the natural social interaction between people,” says Tønnesen.

Creativity before innovation

Tønnessen’s doctoral project initially focused on creativity and interaction in co-working spaces, which are office communities where employees from different companies work together.

However, when Covid-19 shut down society, Tønnessen expanded the project to include home office and remote work in general.

Tønnessen believes that too little attention is paid to what is a fundamental condition for innovation, namely creativity.

“The ways we work have become more complex in the last three years. There are many new expectations about being able to work from places other than the office, but little research-based knowledge about how it works,” he says.

Expectations out of sync

“Employees and employers often have different expectations and preferences when it comes to where and how work should be done,” notes Tønnessen.

Even colleagues in the same department, who were in the same life situation and had the same background, often had conflicting wishes and attitudes towards home office.

“It’s not as simple as introverts wanting to work from home and extroverts wanting to be at the office and meeting people. It’s much more complex,” he says.

Factors that can be crucial include, for example, commuting distance, or an employee’s family situation. It also depends on whether one is working on independent tasks that require deep concentration or whether the work requires conversations and collaboration.

Incorporating new employees into the social work environment is difficult digitally. Even though many newly graduated IT employees may want to work from home, it can ultimately create challenges both for them and for the organisation they have been hired by.

“You can easily miss essential information when you’re not together physically. Things happen when you meet. It’s not always easy to define, measure, or evaluate, but it is fundamentally important. Often, it lays the foundation for individuals to develop together with their colleagues,” says Tønnessen.

Found patterns among IT employees

As part of his doctoral degree, Tønnessen interviewed several IT employees in Denmark and Norway. They were accustomed to video meetings and digital collaboration even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the research focused on how employees preferred to work during various stages of creative projects. The IT employees made the following observations:

  • In the initial stage of projects involving creative problem-solving, everyone benefits from physically sitting together. This is important for getting to know each other, building trust, and defining the problem more easily.
  • During the idea development stage, one can work from home. The precondition is that everyone does, and that everyone uses the same tools. If that is not possible, the alternative is for everyone to be physically together in the office during this phase as well.
  • In the final stage, where ideas need to be evaluated and feedback given, hybrid meetings can work. This means that some people work in the office while others work remotely from their homes or other locations.

“You can’t generalize from a study like this, but it shows some patterns that can offer valuable insights,” says Tønnessen.

Important, but difficult to measure

He says that some stages of creative processes can work just as well digitally as in person. The prerequisite is thorough planning and well-organised implementation.

Hybrid work, where employees alternate between remote work and traditional office work, has become a trend. Tønnessen believes it will be interesting to see how technologies such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality will change the workplace.

“Will the office become a social gathering place rather than a place for independent work requiring concentration? Digitalisation accelerated during the pandemic, but new technologies give us new ways of working with creative processes in the future,” says Tønnessen.

Source: Creativity in Remote and Hybrid Work Environments

An Industrial PhD is a project in which a company and a university collaborate on a doctoral project. The doctoral project is carried out by an employee and must be of relevance to the company. Read more about the Industrial PhD scheme on the Research Council's website.