Social and scientific foundations for Remote Work

During this crisis of Coronavirus COVID-19 many companies are trying to employ standard practices –such as video calls and coordination techniques– to help people work from home. Unfortunately, many of these significantly decrease productivity, motivation, and increase the effort required to get good results.

In 2019 the 2nd. edition of my book Leading Exponential Change was published in 3 languages and audiobook. At the time of writing it, I did not know that there would be a worldwide crisis as a result of the COVID-19 , and a large part of the population would need to work remotely.

As a result of this, I have decided to make public part of my book –and specifically the section that explains in detail many advanced techniques and social/scientific foundations to help organizations deal with highly distributed environments.

Many of the practices you will learn are the result of dozens of experiments in different companies around the world and based on a concept called Social Visibility. This is part of the framework that is helping companies around the world to increase adaptability to change (Enterprise Social Systems).

I hope the Lean and Agile community around the world find it useful!

….In the late 1980s, people began to realize that social changes in companies could not be explained without taking into account where their activities took place. In addition, certain behaviors couldn’t be easily altered without changing the layout of the office.

Your company might not feel it’s a priority to evaluate how physical space affects results, or how the layout of an office can impact the adoption of a change. If this is the case, it would be a good time to introduce ideas to help your company understand why evaluating this aspect is important.

Think about the software teams you consider successful. You’ll see that they do not spend most of their time coding in front of a computer, but rather talking among themselves and working collaboratively on new ideas. They are confirming assumptions with clients and learning from each other. This is because activities that require creativity also need a high social component.

In 2001, the Agile mindset and Scrum framework suggested that those who contributed to increased business value for a product (the value stream) should be physically near each other and should communicate primarily face- to-face. Based on this, organizations began to give more importance to the interactions between individuals than to their processes.

But how do you get most of the information in your company? Those around you will likely say that their information comes from emails, chats, telephone conversations, or face-to-face talks. These standard channels have been used for years to communicate with employees and to get feedback from customers. We mustn’t forget that people receive a lot of information by sharing space where they can see each other.

It is estimated that over 50% of your conscious information comes from what you see. Each optic cell has over a million nerve fibers. Ten million bits per second are transmitted to the retina and six million reach the brain. Of these, 10,000 are transmitted to the prefrontal cortex, and only 100 reach your conscious mind. It may seem like a small number, but this action is repeated several times per second. In addition, our amygdala can interpret between 2,000 and 4,000 subtle messages from our physical environment each day, without any of it perceived or interpreted by your conscious mind. Therefore, information from our physical environment greatly affects our learning and the decisions we make.

When visual information is scarce, creative activities aren’t as productive. Individuals begin to create new behaviors or processes that replace the information they need and don ́t have.

Many companies have employees in different geographical areas. In these cases, technology (video, chat, etc.) is used to replicate physical channels of communication. But experience tells us that groups who share the same space have much higher productivity than groups that are separated. Information from Scrum Inc. speaks of a loss of up to 50% of business value when the person acting as the Product Owner of a Scrum team is physically located at a separate site.

With distance, we lose channels where a great quantity of information flows. Individuals working remotely do not learn at the same speed, or they do not always fully understand what is happening. The result is diminished transparency and a need to add new processes or reports to make up for the lack of information.

To cultivate behaviors that favor the constant flow of knowledge, Enterprise Social Systems offers a specific component so that people understand what they must take into account when modifying a physical space or working remotely.

Enterprise Social Visibility refers to knowledge that supports the flow of work and is passively captured from the environment. It includes social interactions, information radiators, and the recognition of behaviors and facial expressions.

Enterprise Social Visibility focuses on educating people about where information comes from so they can create more effective plans, processes, or frameworks. Enterprise Social Visibility suggests five areas of action:

  1. Public Information radiators: Use physical panels (paper, whiteboards, and screens) in public and visible areas, with relevant information for the people who do the work. As much as possible, information recipients should be aware that a board has been updated because of a social behavior. If you are dealing with electronic boards, for example, ensure that alerting others of the change requires a visible social interaction such as having to stand before the public touch screen to modify it.
  2. Visible social interactions: People should be able to observe the standard social treatment or etiquette of other members; that is, recognize the social protocol of those around you (such as a handshake). This allows everyone to gain knowledge about different situations, even if they do not participate in them.
  3. Recognition of visible facial expressions: Individuals should be able to observe the facial expressions of others to judge their emotional state, like when there is a conversation between two people at a distance but in the same space.
  4. Visualización of actions and movements for recognition and prediction: Individuals should be able to observe others when they are performing other tasks (social movement within the office). This causes their brains to establish links (conscious or unconscious) with the people observed, and to store knowledge based on the results of the perceived interactions.
  5. Connection between the value stream and the physical space:The physical space must represent how value is created for the client. If fifteen people are needed to do the work from the conception of a product to its availability, then the best way for that group to carry out tasks should align with points 1 to 4. If there’s a change in how value is created, then the physical space must adapt as quickly as possible to the new value stream.

As you can see, interactions with the physical environment offer data that are constantly made visible, allowing individuals to reach different conclusions and decisions. For example, social knowledge creates links in your mind that can make you react in a certain way.

If you observe your task partner David meeting with a marketing expert who has a skill that’s indispensable to your team, you will create a link in your memory that will relate the skills of that expert with David. In the future, if you need to know more about marketing, you would probably talk to David before looking for the expert.

The five key areas of Enterprise Social Visibility provide the foundation for maximizing the flow of knowledge from the environment, and this refers to any improvement process or new framework.

An idea to increase social visibility is to have all participants stand during talks or meetings. By doing this, people will move more and their minds will connect those actions with shared ideas and the environment.

Don’t forget that information from the office is filtered by your brain. This means that it will only store what it considers relevant. A vision of the change, product, or definition of business value will therefore help minds prioritize what to pay attention to and what to discard.

Fixed-cadence meetings, or meetings that take place at the same time and place (Scrum events), also increase attention and have a positive impact on Enterprise Social Visibility . Here the brain is prepared in advance for what will come.

Tools can increase Enterprise Social Visibility in environments where teams are geographically distributed. Sococo ( is a pioneer in virtually connecting social and spatial environments that produce a constant flow of information.

(*) Sococo allows the creation of virtual spaces that provide rich social information.

No matter where they are, this type of tool helps people observe who they are meeting, social movements and dynamics within the office, daily patterns of movement within the physical space, and cadence. It also allows face-to- face communication, when necessary. This will notably increase Enterprise Social Visibility.

It is worth pointing out that the Boston Consulting Group opted to take these concepts to the next level. In 2017, they opened offices in New York and set about maximizing the impact of the physical environment on the informal connections between people. They designed a workspace that increased interaction among the employees, ensuring these interactions were as unpredictable as possible. The goal was to increase the flow of random information and to ensure that knowledge flowed in all directions within the organization.

The design of the office forced employees to run into each other frequently, increasing the probability of exchanging knowledge informally (Enterprise Social Density) and thereby multiplying knowledge from the physical environment (Enterprise Social Visibility).

To achieve the latter, the firm Humanyze asked volunteer employees to wear sensors and work as normal for a few weeks while the Humanyze team recorded how and where they interacted.

Apart from when and where most of the communications occurred, they also monitored latency, that is, how long employees moved throughout the office without exchanging words with others.

The data collected allowed them to analyze all communication patterns and to know what areas of the office had higher or lower social density.

Next came the magic. Humanyze suggested modifying the layout of the offices to maximize the flow of relevant knowledge. As a result, their design ensured the constant flow of knowledge from the environment, enabling employees to adapt it to their existing ways of working.

The Humanyze design entailed the following:

  • Flexible and open spaces that allow different uses and styles of work, and that maximize interactions between people.
  • Large and fully equipped rooms for groups that work together for weeks or months.
  • Multipurpose areas for social and community events that allow all office employees to get together.
  • Spaces specifically designed for customers and employees to interact without physical barriers.
  • Immersion rooms to facilitate the exchange of information in real-time among the participants, with giant screens and controls that enable virtual interaction.
  • Hexagonal rooms with touch monitors to accelerate the design and incubation of new ideas.
  • Technologies that allow you to work anywhere, at any time, and observe those who are in the office.

As you can see, Enterprise Social Visibility enables the flow of knowledge from social interactions and supports any change plan. The following are recommendations for increasing Enterprise Social Visibility:

  1. Use information radiators (boards, Kanban, etc.) in public areas to share relevant data; alternatively, find other ways to share information—anything that attracts the attention of value network members.
  2. Have employees who create value sit together as much as possible.
  3. Ensure that the environment supports the product or change vision and how value is produced for the customer.
  4. Organize events or meetings with fixed cadence, which prepares minds and increases predictability.
  5. Ensure that physical space forces employees to walk by each other frequently but also allows them to maintain privacy, if preferred.
  6. Promote a culture where people feel safe and can express themselves freely.
  7. Keep in mind that bureaucracy and complication are increased if activities with high Enterprise Social Visibility are replaced with activities that generate less social information.

If a company executive wants to know how an organization with high Enterprise Social Visibility works, organize a visit to another company that excels in this area. This will provide the curious executive with more information than you could by explaining the concepts.

Remember to ensure that there’s at least one simple way to measure the improvement of Enterprise Social Visibility in you company.

If you enjoyed this, please consider reading Leading Exponential Change.

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