Home / What can rain forests teach organizations about re-designing workplaces for a world with Covid-19?

Years ago I read a great book on the role that viruses and other pathogens play in the ‘design’ of the rain forest. Over time the plants in a rain forest species balance their need to be close, for cross-pollination, with a countervailing need to limit the spread of pathogens that affect their species, by distancing themselves from one another throughout the forest.

I’ve been wondering if there might be some lessons organizations can learn from those highly pathogen resistant rain forest species, to make our own workplaces more resilient in a world with Covid-19. A world where the risks of renewed pandemic breakouts could remain for the foreseeable future.

In the damp rain forest environment, plants are continuously being attacked by pathogens. Periodically a new one emerges with the capacity to spread rapidly through a species and devastate its members if they are situated close together. Against that threat, plants still need to remain in sufficiently close proximity to their own kind to allow for the cross-pollination that ensures the species can flourish.

The outcome of that balancing act is a rain forest with a startlingly even distribution of plant species. There are virtually no large clusters of any one plant in a rain forest. But the plants do still live within cross pollination range of sufficient members of their species to continue their species growth.

Now, of course, the trees did not have a design meeting to achieve their strategy. It has emerged through endless interactions with the animals and pathogens sharing the forest with them. But, for the purposes of discussion, let’s suppose the trees in the forest did consciously generate their approach. What lessons could we learn from it to help our own organizations become more resilient in a world affected by Covid-19, or even the next pandemic virus after it?

Well, if we think of our community as a being like the forest, and of each company and corporate function as being like the species and sub-species of plant within it, then we can start to see how the trees’ approach might be applied to our own workplace strategy thinking.

Companies, like species of plant, need to balance two objectives now. They must ensure that the whole organization is resilient to the pathogen, but they also must ensure the individual members can operate within social settings that enable the healthy cross-fertilization of ideas through which the organizations creates its value and grows.

Innovation, generally, comes from the combination of existing knowledge in unforeseen ways. These ‘mash ups’ often pop into existence through ‘water-cooler’ conversations between individuals that veer off strategy and join the dots in entirely new ways. This ‘cross pollination’ of people’s knowledge is critical to keeping any organization agile, innovative and adaptive. As Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, said recently

“some of our greatest innovations were the result of chance encounters in the office—and it’s clear this is something many of us don’t want to lose”.
So, to create resistance to pathogens companies and their functions may need to be broken up and spread around our environment just like species in the rain forest. But, just like in the rain forest, this first objective will need to be achieved in a way that does not isolate individuals so much that it undermines their long term performance, or the emergent collective intelligence and inventiveness of the team.

In the pre-Covid world, organizations of all types typically gathered their people into ever larger and more centralized facilities. The arguments in favor of large HQs, regional offices or campuses were the emergent efficiencies and the team dynamics that arose from having everyone together. But that large scale aggregation, with its communal social areas, common elevators and corridors, common entrances, cafes and local gathering points now looks like a design weakness for any organization. With Covid-19’s asymptomatic carrier phenomenon well documented, these all look like hot spots and vectors for the virus to be rapidly and catastrophically spread by just a handful of individuals to most of an organization. It’s exactly the type of clustering that species in the rain forest would avoid for its vulnerability to disease. So what would the rain-forest strategy suggest if we want to create a pathogen resistant, but still high performance, workplace?

Well, it would probably suggest something like breaking each organization’s population up into teams (these might represent half of any function) and then moving those new teams out into areas, well away from the organizations other teams, to places where they will be surrounded by teams from completely unrelated organizations. This geographic distribution of an organization, while not protecting its individual staff from infection, would then prevent a future wave of infection having a catastrophic an entire organization or departments ability to operate. It would produce this resilience while allowing individual workers to return to something like a normal social environment where healthy team dynamics can return.

How could this be done in the real world?
In the immediate battle to control the spread of Covid-19, communities around the world have employed working from home (WFH) as their main solution. Complete isolation of all individuals has helped stop the spread of the virus. But in the long term, for organizations that need high functioning teams, WFH isolation is almost certainly not the answer. Just like the trees in the forest, we need some proximity to our workmates to allow us to fully perform. Long term WFH is likely to be far too isolating for a knowledge workforce to be high performing. It represents the long term elimination of the team dynamic, of all the water cooler type conversations where relationships are built and ideas are developed. Remote working as a permanent solution could well undermine the creativity and performance of an organization.

There are other downsides to WFH too. It is detrimental to both mental and physical health. Isolation can lead to sedentary behavior and even depression. It also has the potential to compromise our long term herd immunity to other pathogens that currently don’t threaten us greatly – such as the common flu.

I would hypothesize that a good solution, suggested by the rain forest analogy, might be large scale cross-sharing of office real estate by unrelated organizations.

The world’s big office employers could cooperate in a program to introduce extensive co-location. The aim would be to spread each organizations functions out around the country, or even the world, by pooling and distributing office space in a planned way to generate greater Covid-19 resilience.

Company A might send half of its software developers to work on the 8th floor of Company B’s headquarters. While B frees that same floor up by sending half its finance team to work in a space on the campus of Company C. As each of these companies breaks its teams apart and distributes them throughout the community, so each organization becomes more resilient to any future pandemic while still providing its workers with normal office settings in which to operate.

Co-location is obviously not a new concept. The innovation here is simply the idea that the co-location of many teams across many organizations could all be coordinated simultaneously and deliberately to distribute each participants workforce geographically and thereby reduce its vulnerability to Covid-19.

Dairy farming is New Zealand’s largest single industry. There are 10,500 farms across the country. Each year many farms change hands, many staff move between properties and even whole herds of cows often change location. To minimize the enormous planning and disruption these transfers could create during the milking season, all 10,500 farms collaborate to create a better outcome. There is, by tacit agreement of 10,500 farm owners, a single day every year in New Zealand on which all of the major changes of farm management, staff and herd location take place. This impressive, industry wide collaboration hugely reduces disruption to the rest of the farming year. Maybe there needs to be a similar level of coordination between the world’s biggest employers to meet the momentous challenges of returning their teams to full operational effectiveness with Covid-19.

The benefits of having a more distributed workforce extend beyond employee health. Large corporate HQ’s often occupy very expensive real estate in key geographic hubs. This creates enormous local competition for labor, it places huge demands on local infrastructure and it escalates local house prices. Remote working technologies and the use of a more distributed workforce could allow organizations and their employees to take advantage of lower real estate costs and lower competition for employees across a much wider set of locations. This would be very good for bringing jobs to smaller towns and cities, spreading employment and income across a wider geography.

We are all hoping for a vaccine. But the timeline and the eventual effectiveness of any vaccine remain uncertain. Complicating matters, is the high level of vaccination, around 70-80%, that is required for herd immunity. Considering a recent poll found that only 50% of Americans would actually take a vaccine, it would be foolish to rely on one as the only solution for returning to full productivity.

While we wait for a vaccine, there are a lot of lessons we can draw from the natural world to help us live with, what is after all, just one more in an endless procession of pathogens that attack any species. There are plenty more viruses out there waiting their turn to cause a pandemic. Changing organizations to be more distributed on a permanent basis is starting to look like a wise option. It’s a strategy that could offer a multitude of resilience, financial and health benefits for employees and organizations alike.