Creativity or development? Hybrid work plans depend on aims

Speaking at the opening keynote on day 2 of the CIPD’s Festival of Work Carl Benedikt Frey, director of the Future of Work programme at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, argued that place is going to be as important as ever in the next normal.

Frey referenced an observation made by economist and academic Frances Cairncross in the 1990s that: “In half a century’s time, it may well seem extraordinary that millions of people once trooped from one building (their home) to another (their office) each morning, only to reverse the procedure each evening ... Commuting wastes time and building capacity."

Though Frey agreed this arrangement may seem impractical and uneconomical, he said that technology is not about to change it dramatically.

“Whatever the future holds there is nothing to suggest, so far at least, that place will become less important with the digital revolution. In fact, our research suggests that the opposite has been true," he said.

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Place, particularly the workplace, will be fundamental, Frey argued, for the chance encounters that allow creativity to thrive.

"There's been an exponential increase in the distance between people innovating since the invention of the web in the 1990s, suggesting that they can collaborate quite effectively at distance. But at the same time, I think it's important to remember that those people had to meet somewhere in order to decide to collaborate in the first instance," he said.

"The evidence suggests that when important conferences get cancelled, for example, innovation tends to suffer in those fields because those sporadic interactions are very important for people to get together and share ideas."

Though remote working has the potential to distribute the workforce outside of cities that typically attract work, Frey observed a trend that suggests it is only adding more fuel to these areas.

“Rather than digital technology making the world more even, it has so far, if anything, made it less even. New job titles [in technology] are very highly clustered in cities with skilled populations making place more important.”

As people continue to cluster in cities, and remote work may remain an option rather than the norm, striking the right balance in a hybrid plan Frey suggested may be about the nature of the task at hand.

"Our research suggests that on balance, on-site teams tend to produce more foundational, more disruptive innovations and discoveries, than distributed teams," he said.

"Distributed teams are very good at developing existing ideas but much less good at developing entirely new ones.”


HR magazine is reporting from the CIPD's 2021 Festival of Work all week. To stay up to date with any of the discussions you miss, follow us on Twitter for real-time updates and reports.

You can find more of our coverage of this year's conference here.