Weak Ties and Brainstorming
What we miss when we don’t organically share space
Drew Pearce looks into research undertaken recently by Jen DiZio and Amanda Gail Miller of Dropbox:
They surveyed 4,000 people from the US, Canada, Australia, France, UK, Japan, and Singapore in industries ranging from construction, education, engineering and architecture to finance, health care, media, technology and real estate. They also interviewed 36 workers — half from historically remote companies and half from recently remote companies.
Workers were asked a range of questions, including which tools they used to communicate with colleagues before and after COVID, which tools they used for virtual meetings, what challenges they faced moving to remote meetings, how they’re trying to build community, and what they miss most about working in the office.
What DiZio and Miller discovered is that although distributed work can boost productivity, people are feeling blocked by the absence of one factor that’s harder to measure: human connection.
Actually, I think DiZio and Miller are using the wrong term. It’s not strong connections but weak connections that are hard to maintain or create when working remotely. We can maintain our strong connections with the members of formal teams, our managers, and close friends, but the chance interactions with others in the company, professional colleagues we used to see at conferences or events, or even random people in coffee shops… those are all in short supply.
[Granovetter] developed the distinction between the ‘strong ties’ between close friends or kin, and the ‘weak ties’ that exist between more casual acquaintances. Weak and strong are not only relational — referring to the strength of the tie, and the frequency of the individuals’ interactions — but also indicate a structural dimension. Weak ties connect strongly linked clusters — cliques of friends or tightly-knit families — and act as a mechanism for novel information to move from one cluster to another, and once that information reaches a cluster, it spreads to all the members. As a result, Grannoveter called this the ‘strength of weak ties’, and he credits them with being the most important means of information transfer. And information also includes disease, like passing around the newest flu bug, and other social phenomena, like happiness.
DiZio is clearly thinking about the strength of weak ties, as she off-handedly debunks the conventional arguments about serendipitous interactions leading to million-dollar ideas:
“There’s a big misconception that the reason people need to meet in the office is to have these brilliant brainstorm ideas,” says DiZio. “You talk at the water cooler and all of a sudden you decide the project of the year. We think the real value of this connective tissue is that you’re more present, and more in tune with people from other teams.”
DiZio believes these are the moments that forge important relationships between co-workers. Without those connections, people become more siloed in their individual roles.
“We have technology that can help us, but a lot of research shows it still doesn’t replace that physical presence,” she says. “That metaphor of the connective tissue really stood out for us.”
Yeah, but you don’t know at the time of forging a weak tie that it might someday become a strong tie. Or, even if it remains just a weak tie, it can be a conduit for novel information, something you and your closest colleagues haven’t heard about yet.
Nonetheless, what about brainstorming? Can we do it now, in the zero office model?
This finding seems to make the case for tools like workboards. However, DiZio casts cold water on workboard solutions:
“The current solutions that are available — MURAL, Google slides, Figma — weren’t designed with that need in mind,” she says. “People are looking for solutions that are very fast, lightweight, simple, and intuitive. One of the ideas that we also surfaced was a touch-based team whiteboard for teams to spontaneously collaborate using an iPad.”
“Some design teams have been relying heavily on tools like MURAL,” DiZio adds. “What we heard from other people is it tends to be design heavy. It’s great for a room of designers to use, but for others types of thinkers, it hasn’t been so successful.”
I will simply offer the observation that Mural just raised a monster series B round of $118 million, and in their press release they outlined how quickly their user base — and revenue — are growing:
Doubled headcount in the last 6 months; we expect to be at 300 employees by year-end
Added over a million monthly active users around the world so far this year
Tripled annual revenue year over year
Expanded enterprise memberships where brands such as IBM, Autodesk, Intuit, and Atlassian have up to tens of thousands of MURAL members collaborating with the product each month
I can’t speak to Figma, as I have zero experience with the tool, and I agree that Google Slides — or other slide presentation tools — are poor tools for synchronous sharing of ideas on a whiteboard-like screen. But the uptake of workboard tools like Miro and Mural is growing exponentially.
I bet that many people use workboards in a light pattern of use, at least to begin, and then they scale their use based on growing familiarity. And iPad use for workboards is quite common.