There’s an element to remote work that we’re not talking about enough. Hopefully, when I’m done, you’ll disagree.
Ten months into this forced experiment, it’s common to bemoan the loss of “unplanned collaborations” — chance encounters between coworkers that Steve Jobs famously envisioned when he brought all of Pixar’s departments into a single office building. When we’re not together, we can’t have those spontaneous hallway and kitchenette exchanges that lead to creative breakthroughs or small moments of clarity.
But I’ve come to suspect that the hardest thing to recreate virtually isn’t collaboration, but healthy conflict.
Anyone who’s spent time on social media knows that respectfully disagreeing online is an art few of us have mastered. In person, we use body language, facial expressions and tone to soften our words. When reduced to faces on a video call, avatars in a chat or voices on the phone, mild expressions of dissent land with much greater force, hurting feelings and causing overreactions.
We see it every day online, where people who would probably get along fine if they stood in line together at the grocery store say unspeakably horrible things to one another, shielded by distance and anonymity.
As a result, too many employees choose to avoid speaking up in remote work meetings. They keep their opinions to themselves — even as they watch a project go off the rails — rather than risk seeming uncooperative or insubordinate. This roba the organization of valuable input and drives each of us further into an isolated bubble.
While it’s not often acknowledged, there’s upside to healthy conflict.
In 2016, Columbia University sociologist David Stark studied teams behind more than 12,000 video games, and found that the most innovative were those with diverse backgrounds and conflicting perspectives.
"It is this uneasy fit, a lack of harmony, which is innovative," he said. "It is a mobilization of productive tension to create something exceptional. Misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication can be as important as a smooth exchange of ideas."
Workplace culture was hard enough to navigate before we were all forced into isolation. But suppressing even casual disagreements is dangerous and unsustainable.
I understand the fear of speaking up. We’ve seen “cancel culture” rapidly dismiss permanent fixtures in business, politics and culture. That can have a chilling effect on free expression.
But honest and respectful disagreements — positive agitation — are never a fireable offense. To the contrary, offensive conduct or speech can’t be tolerated because it suppresses free expression. When employees don’t feel comfortable, they are less likely to speak their minds — even when it’s in the team’s best interest. Criticism is central to creativity, and it’s a leader’s job to make room for it.
At GroupM, we will incorporate questions to our performance review process to meet this responsibility, such as: are leaders making room for conflicting ideas? Are they welcoming unconventional input? We want to know which leaders are leading — not just managing or avoiding conflict.
Making room for opposing viewpoints may not come naturally. Some cultures are far more tolerant of dissent than others, and every manager should decide how best to elicit honest opinions.
But there are ways to alleviate the discomfort. We should ask employees to voice their deepest reservations and wildest fears about what could go wrong at various points throughout a project. Framing it this way removes the stigma of negativity and turns dissent into a creative exercise.
We need to remember that positive agitation is not a personal attack. Disagreements are the very heart of diversity. There’s no point in building diversified teams if we aren’t open to hearing — or expressing — opposing viewpoints. That tension is how we do our best work, and we can’t sacrifice it on the altar of workplace decorum.
There are clear lines none of us should ever cross. Personal attacks and racist or sexist comments are the opposite of respectful disagreement.
With luck and perseverance, we will soon once again share a lively, dynamic workspace. In the meantime, we need to preserve our ability to respectfully disagree, for the sake of better creativity.
Of course, I could be wrong. On this and all other things, please, feel free to disagree.
Christian Juhl is global chief executive officer of GroupM