Time to rethink your company culture

Focus on building collaboration and innovation in the new working world


Those of us who usually work in an office have found ourselves working from home for the best part of a year. For many of us this has been a new experience. Before the pandemic, millions of workers in the knowledge economy had never been given the opportunity to work remotely, despite the technology being available and the demand being obviously there, especially from digital-minded millennials and working parents.

For many newly remote workers, the experience was, initially, almost a cause for celebration. No more ridiculous early-morning alarm buzzer. No more long commute back and forth to a soulless space and a rank of desks. No more awkward watercooler moments or waiting impatiently for a microwave to cook a colleague’s elaborate lunch.

Instead – as it turned out – hours upon hours of being alone; back-to-back Zoom calls; trying to work productively and under pressure alongside flatmates – or worse, small children.   

Bringing back the fun

London Business School launched a series of webinars at the outset of the pandemic to discuss the key challenges for businesses, society, politicians and the economy that Covid-19 presented. Lynda Gratton (pictured above), Professor of Management Practice at London Business School (LBS), and co- author of The 100-year Life, and The New Long Life launched the series in mid- March 2020 with reflections and observations on how best to make virtual working work for an extended period of time. She highlighted the pitfalls of being away from the office “community” and offered some direction for shell-shocked business leaders faced with the new, unexpected and confusing reality of managing a distributed workforce with different stresses and wellbeing needs.

Companies are now out of crisis mode. The “new normal” or “new different” is starting to take shape, but most office workers are still largely tapping away on their laptops at home. Our energy levels are flagging and Zoom fatigue has set in. There are no watercooler moments. There are no serendipitous connections in the communal kitchen or after a meeting or even at your desk. Your day is scheduled within an inch of its life. Fun at work? That seems to have been largely cancelled for now – but what about the future?

How do you collaborate in the locked-down world – and how can businesses innovate when an essential ingredient needed for innovation – collaboration – is increasingly difficult to come by? 

Professor Gratton says these are now the key issues in the workplace. Here, she discusses some solutions to collaboration in a hybrid working world and the future of the office with Jenni Emery, Global People and Culture Leader at Arup, an employee-owned engineering, design and built environment consultancy with more than 74 offices around the world and 16,500 employees.    

Lynda Gratton: “There are four ingredients that a workplace needs to be collaborative, where people are sharing ideas and innovating. The first is you need the right culture; a bedrock built on trust and cooperation. That sets the scene, but what really moves knowledge around the organisation and into your stakeholder groups, is the second ingredient – diverse networks. The third is productive capacity – the ability to work collaboratively – and the fourth is a sense of purpose or an ignition that creates energy. The combination of these four areas is really what creates cooperation in an organisation.

“But we know when people working virtually at home for a long period of time, their networks start to collapse. Conflict resolution becomes more difficult, energy flags and that sense of belonging that we used to have at work is being chipped away. All that makes achieving a culture of cooperation more elusive.

“Of course, for employee’s it can also just be very lonely, which can eventually affect productivity depending on personality type and working style. At the moment, what concerns me is the pressure on networks. Right now we are consistently reaching out to people we know well – to our ‘strong ties’, people whom we trust, and with whom we can share information and knowledge quickly. That has been a lifesaver for many over the past months.

“But many other types of more diverse networks, made up of ‘weak ties’ are eroding - people simply bumping into each other and having the equivalent of a water cooler moment. There are much fewer opportunities for those chance encounters and novel combinations of people that can lead to serendipitous discoveries and new ideas. This is not good news for organisations and businesses that thrive on innovation and creativity.”

Breaking down siloes

Jenni Emery, Global People and Culture Leader at Arup: “As dumb luck would have it, two weeks before lockdown we conducted a big conversation with all our members. This was inspired by the notion we believe in, which is: true vision comes from listening.

“So, going into the pandemic, we had really good insights from our members about what is important to them. Some of these values included transparency, being purposeful and wanting more collaboration – and we used the findings from that conversation as a lever to keep people close during this period.

“We have been supporting our leaders to run listening sessions, giving them coaching, having them engaged in webinars to upskill them so that they can be very visible and share their experiences. This has helped employees make sense of our new reality and foster connections even while we are all not physically together.

“The result of that is, I feel I am now working in a much more intimate organisation than I did previously. It’s almost like we have gone from being a firm of 74 offices operating in siloes to being 16,500 people working in one big hive and we feel people much more readily engaging across the business.

“The other thing we have done is really double down on our purpose. Arup is a purpose-led organisation – it always has and always will be. We took a decision to publish our new strategy and re-articulated our purpose, which is shaping a better world, and what that means now is that sustainability is absolutely at the heart of our business. We felt it was so important, even amid all the uncertainty, to be crystal clear about that and use that as a guiding star for everyone in all the work we do.

“One very prominent example where being explicit about that has paid off is in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.  We have been able to engage in that conversation on the basis of that premise: because we are committed to sustainability. We are committed to peace and justice and strong institutions and equality, and we care about how power and privilege are used in society. That whole conversation has been easier and more engaging for everyone because we put our purpose front and centre.

“So, that is how we are working thinking about networks and collaboration. But what is the future of the physical office? A lot of spaces that we took for granted will now be reimagined. Public spaces, train stations, airports, how people move from one place to another, and of course the office. What are they for? How do we use them in the future?

“We believe we will still very much need workspaces in the future, as much as ever. We need them to have equality of space at work; to have those important encounters with each other, to exchange knowledge and learn. So much of learning comes from osmosis, by being alongside people. But, we need to be really intentional and considered about how we use offices in the future – and about how we use virtual space.

“Sometimes, things work better virtually. It’s easier to imagine what a bridge would look like using virtual reality and see all the different options. We have been running design workshops virtually by necessity over the past months. The feedback is that these have been some of the best we have run, because they are democratic, exploratory and much easier than being confined in a room. So, the biggest takeaway from me, is being very intentional in how we design and convene and use physical and virtual spaces for the most effective collaboration.”   

Lynda Gratton: “I agree. Even five years ago we couldn’t have brought people together on large virtual platforms, like the ones Arup has been using. One of the ways we can try and recreate the water cooler moment is through technology. Businesses must experiment as much as possible and understand that the future will not be defined by the leadership teams. It will be co-creational and must be consensual.

“I do believe we will go back to physical office offices eventually, but there needs to be a lot of thought about how those physical spaces will and should be used. They have been used really as a factory – a last vestige of the industrial revolution. We need to forget about that. They must be used to promote community, a place of collaboration.”

Four ways to build collaboration in the new working world

  1. Don’t just try and replicate the “old working world” of face-to-face with an online equivalent. Experiment as much as you can with different technologies and different formats and styles of virtual meetings and events to try and find the best replica for “the water cooler moment” and foster serendipitous connections.
  2. Do something outside your scheduled day of endless Zooms. Pick up the phone instead of formalising a meeting. Do something spontaneous. If you’re a leader, join another team’s call to find out how they are spending their day, what they are working on. That will help build trust, strengthen those weakening networks and foster that creativity that may be rapidly draining out of your organisation.
  3. Use the people in your teams who are good at reaching across different areas of your business. These “boundary spanners” are very important, particularly now. Encourage them to continue those boundary spanning activities and make them feel valued, because they are actually very valuable.
  4. Nobody knows what the future will look like, but in the new working world, the best leaders are storytellers. They must create different scenarios of what the future could look like and share these stories widely. By doing so they ignite the energy and sense of purpose in their colleagues, many of whom are physically separated and now crucially now need this shared vision.
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