The first thing to say about the law of unintended consequences is that it isn’t actually a law. It’s not one of those iron-clad certainties like the gaseous laws of chemistry that you could verify in the school labs or blow yourself up in a tilt at falsification.
It’s more like those laws named after Murphy, Fingale or Sod – an attempt to crystallise one of the follies associated with human endeavour that turns out to be true more often than not.
To be human, says this particular dictum, is to overestimate our powers of agency – to imagine that we can isolate a lever within a complex system and alter it a bit in the name of progress, in spite of our ignorance of how it connects to countless unseen crankshafts, gears and flywheels deep inside the ensemble. What could possibly go wrong?
You might as well call it the law of ‘oops’. Except, perhaps, not. Because while those unintended consequences are normally catalogued in the debit column, just occasionally things can go in the other direction and turn out to be beneficial in ways not foreseen at the outset.
What offices enable
Right now, in corporations around the globe, working-group committees are focusing in hard on one of those ‘positive unintended consequences’. The problem these squads have been tasked with solving is how and in what order to get people back to the office. That has forced them to confront a tricky question: once the pandemic is over, what makes working at the office superior to working from home?
The answer they’re rounding on is one that would never have occurred to the originators of the office as a way of organising human work – an arrangement that dates back to the emergence of trading companies and centralised states some 400 years ago.
The object of this new invention, ‘the office’, was to provide space for the storage of written records and to keep check on the workforce. Centuries later, unintended consequences would include commuting, the all-staff Christmas party and a Pret on every city block.
These are not, however, the accidents that have captured the imaginations of those corporate work-group committees. The serendipitous feature of office life that they have alighted on is something altogether more edifying, with the potential, it is argued, to enhance both personal and corporate performance.
The sensation of a rival’s hot breath on the neck is the ultimate spur to go all out for the line.
It is about the chance encounters, the water cooler moments, the unplanned interactions that just don’t happen on Zoom. What these promote, claim enthusiasts, are exchanges of ideas and acts of micro-collaboration that inexorably lead to better working ways and constant innovation.
This argument is not without its detractors. Rory Sutherland has observed that chance meetings and team bonding could just as well happen in the pub. In a recent FT article, it was noted that within office blocks of thousands, many wear headphones and communicate via messaging platforms. As for those water cooler conversations, they are more likely to revolve around the latest celebrity scandal than how to improve another unit’s ROI.
Could the concept of chance collaboration be more of a corporate daydream than a working reality? It certainly seems underpowered as the sole driver of a mass return to those steel-and-glass towers.
Benefits of rivalry
Nevertheless, there is another, less celebrated, unintended consequence of office life that might just do the trick. One that works to promote all of the outcomes business holds dear: ambition, invention, outperformance.
This time we are not talking about touchy-feely collaboration, but raw competition. The unmentionable element at its core is envy. What the office environment provides that Zoom does not is lines of sight across to disparate teams and their comings, goings, successes and threats.
How come that team has spent so long in the board meeting, when we were in and out? Why do those guys seem to be getting more resources than we do? Did you see those heavy-hitters just going in to work with the crew in Zone 4A? Why aren’t we thinking at that scale?
Even where small units try their best to stay under the radar, because they know they’re onto something groundbreaking and don’t want it leaked, others will notice the attempts at secrecy and know not to stay inert. ‘That group are onto something! We’re gonna raise our game right now.’
The point of offices was never to promote internal competition. But put a few hundred people into the same space, working to secure their fair share of finite resources, and an undercurrent of interdepartmental and interpersonal rivalry is one of the outcomes you will get.
So which column does it go into, this unintended consequence of office-based work? The debit or the credit side? Both. Competition is never something that feels comfortable, but the sensation of a rival’s hot breath on the neck is the ultimate spur to go all out for the line.
Marketers should be the first to understand this. We should be the first to remember that what powers improvement is the reality of marketplace competition. We should be first to accept that, in the fractal nature of things, competition will exist not just between corporations, but inside them. And we should be the first to celebrate interpersonal competition as a thrilling counterweight to the more dutiful qualities of teamwork and collaboration.
And the logical consequence of all that is that we should be the first ones back.