Friday 26 February 2021 11:00 am

Goldman Sachs CEO was right, a remote workforce will sow division, not creativity

SVP Executive Creative Director at digital agency R/GA

For much of the last year, chatter amongst business leaders has been on the “new normal” and how we’ve adapted to it.

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have quickly and comfortably adjusted to a Zoom-based reality. We’ve all heard the doomsayers claiming the transition is the death knell for the office

A few large corporations have signalled their willingness to continue on this virtual path. Lloyds Banking Group recently unveiled plans to cut the amount of office space it uses by 20% within three years, and HSBC has announced a 40% cut in its office footprint.

Meanwhile, tech companies like Spotify and Salesforce have introduced Work From Anywhere policies— allowing staff to work from, well, anywhere.

So has the office as we knew it run its natural course? Definitely not.

“This is not ideal for us and it’s not a new normal,” said Goldman Sachs Chief Executive David Solomon at a Credit Suisse conference on Wednesday.

Mr Solomon pointed to the impact on business culture. “I do think for a business like ours, which is an innovative, collaborative apprenticeship culture, this is not ideal for us. It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

In particular Mr Solomon was worried about the prospects for Goldman Sachs’ 3,000 new recruits. “I am very focused on the fact that I don’t want another class of young people arriving at Goldman Sachs in the summer remotely,” he said.

When you have a situation where some staff are in the office, some stay home and some float in between, you can create artificial splits – or classes – amongst colleagues. Fuelling and encouraging these divisions within your own workforce can be hugely detrimental to the efficiency of the business and the power of its culture.

No matter how good the technology, it is difficult to effectively communicate and absorb a working culture when working remotely. Even Google, which has vocally advocated for long-term remote working, expressed concerns on the impact staff working remotely will have on its company culture. So what does business look like in a post-COVID landscape?

Getting back to business

I relocated from New York last year to take on the role of executive creative director at R/GA London. I co-run our office in London, yet I haven’t met a single person that I work with. I have never stepped foot into our building. I couldn’t tell you the colour of the walls, where the loos are or even where my desk might be.

Creativity is a collision business. You need people in a room constructively clashing opinions, experiences, and references in the pursuit of a completely new way to approach a problem. To be productive, you need an environment where conversations and lateral observations flow freely, where an awkward pause is given space because it’s the gap in which genius is propagated.

Zoom by contrast is polite, measured, and individual. Zoomers talk one at a time, assisted by an attentive camera. It’s “pass me the conch” digitised. Zoom meetings fill pauses with despairing cries of “can you still hear me?” Brilliance often lost in a moment of video lag.

Zoom also allows the unengaged to video off—a 21st century corporate diss. New starters are outsiders for longer as they struggle to find the informality that creativity thrives on. There is no virtual corridor where random conversations can suddenly unlock problems.

Plotting a collision course

Being fully remote is like having one hand tied behind your back. You can operate, but you’ll never be as agile or innovative as you could.

You don’t want different classes of workers, either. Instead, you need to recognise, formalise and embrace two working modes – creation and crafting.

Creation mode requires people to be together in person. It’s messy and imprecise, you need familiarity and openness to allow the unexpected and provocative to work their way out. This mode is the beating heart of your company, the furnace that should never be turned off. Successful companies will make sure the office is never empty.

Crafting mode lets people retreat to be remote; to wireframe, write a script, to craft a strategy, to refine a design. This is where open-plan failed us for so long. Uninterrupted spaces are the crafter’s mecca. Managing the balance between modes will be critical.

There cannot be complete freedom of choice, else our business will be reduced to scheduling meetings. Designated time will need to be allocated to each mode on a week-by-week basis.

COVID-19 caught us all off-guard—but the recovery from it should not. Now is the time to discuss how you will work in a post-jab world. As we move forward, business leaders must take stock of the learnings of this past year— but not forget the learnings from the last one hundred. Business and creativity thrive when leaders create spaces in which employees can communicate, craft, and create together.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.