Are Your Individual Contributors Feeling Isolated?
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Leadership Marketing Operations May 1, 2024

Are Your Individual Contributors Feeling Isolated?

A lot of employees could benefit from a structured “lab” setting to inspire meaningful collaboration.

A woman maintains close connections and friendships throughout her career thus avoiding regret down the line.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Florian Zettelmeyer

Summary The autonomy that many knowledge workers have in the workplace can come with the drawback of professional and personal isolation. This can have a negative impact on projects that require collaboration and creativity. One way organizations can mitigate this is by creating a “lab setting” in which employees agree to regular meetings where they share and offer feedback on one another’s work. Here, an expert offers a blueprint to this “lab” model, including how to solicit synchronous feedback and deploy “useful social pressure” to inspire individuals to make progress on projects.

With the rise of hybrid schedules, remote jobs, and scattered teams, many knowledge workers today have come to expect autonomy in the workplace. Fewer meetings. Less chitchat around the water cooler. Plenty of time to concentrate on projects at their own pace.

For some, these are definite perks. But a low-contact, asynchronous method of work has its drawbacks. One significant issue is that it can lead to feelings of personal and professional isolation.

Isolation can be a particular challenge in organizations where projects, tasks, or caseloads are handled largely by individuals.

“In a lot of situations, at the institutional level, everyone is basically an ‘individual contributor.’ That fosters a weaker sense of community,” says Florian Zettelmeyer, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. For workers, “this can create a dynamic where your most intimate professional relationships are with people you don’t see very often.”

His suggestion? Consider creating a “lab setting” for these employees.

Zettelmeyer recently founded Ad-Tech Research Lab, a research group designed to overcome the natural silo effects of the workplace for one particular type of employee: university researchers working on independent projects in the digital advertising space. The Ad-Tech Research Lab asks researchers to agree to certain protocols, including regular meetings where they share and offer feedback on one another’s work.

The idea arose out of Zettelmeyer’s two-year leave of absence from Kellogg, which he spent building the “Advertising Economics” organization at Amazon. In the process, he found that gathering largely autonomous workers in a structured setting had positive effects on the creative and collaborative outputs of those involved.

Of course, labs are hardly uncommon in many universities, hospitals, and firms, especially given the rise of team science. But unlike most, the Ad Tech Lab caters to researchers who do not belong to large teams, meaning they would otherwise be working on their own projects in relative isolation.

Indeed, Zettelmeyer argues, a lot of individual contributors, across a wide range of industries, could benefit from the social accountability and structured collaboration of a “lab.” Often what these contributors need—in addition to social-bonding events like happy hours and corporate retreats—are genuine, supportive thought partners. If people with similar functions or responsibilities in an organization, like IT contractors or grant writers, have a chance to offer each other feedback on their projects, it might be worth adding that extra meeting to the calendar.

“When we all know what we’re working on, we can help raise everyone’s game,” says Zettelmeyer.

Here are two ways designing a “lab setting” can help individual contributors avoid intellectual isolation and do better, more-creative work.

Developing a sense of community

The first thing Zettelmeyer noticed while leading the research team at Amazon was the strong sense of community among the group: every team member appeared invested in their colleagues’ work. Eventually, he concluded that a series of habits and protocols were responsible for fostering that sense of community.

For example, at Amazon, teams would offer regular status updates—sometimes monthly, sometimes biweekly—on the progress they were making on their various projects. Zettelmeyer is making this an element of the shared culture at Ad-Tech Research Lab by inviting members to gather for weekly meetings—in person, whenever possible. At these weekly meetings, each lab member contributes a two-minute update about their work the previous week. Members may report that they found a new data set, for instance, or worked on a revision of a paper, or attended an industry conference.

“People really enjoy this part,” Zettelmeyer says. “You create this situation where there are more opportunities to talk about stuff that matters. Then when you see your colleagues in the hallway, you have a good sense of where they are in their work. You’ve seen their progress and the challenges they’re dealing with. You might even have a ‘shower thought’ and share it with them the following week.”

The power of synchronous feedback

In addition to regular updates, individual contributors can also benefit from deep-dives into a specific project or problem. Traditionally, this has often looked like a “brown bag” presentation, where one of member of the lab presents their work to the rest to solicit feedback.

But another key protocol for Zettelmeyer’s Ad Tech Lab is the “no-presentation meeting,” which is also borrowed from Amazon, where PowerPoint has been banned by executive fiat since 2004.

Instead of presenting their work, lab members instead draft a document of six to eight pages to share with the broader group. Critically, the group reads that document in the meeting—not beforehand—where they offer synchronous feedback via Google Docs’ comments feature.

“At first, it can feel strange to sit in a meeting room and read in silence for half an hour,” Zettelmeyer says. “But what happens is that you end up receiving a ridiculous amount of feedback in a short period of time. And then you can focus on what really matters.”

“We keep each other honest not through explicit mechanisms of control but through a kind of useful social pressure.”

Florian Zettelmeyer

That efficiency is due to both the synchronous nature of the feedback and the social dynamic of being in the same room together, with everyone focused on the same task. Once the others have typed their comments, the person whose work is under review decides what would be most useful to bring up in discussion, having already seen the big picture.

“It’s a nice amalgamation of the meeting format and the kind of work we tend to do remotely,” Zettelmeyer says. “It makes it almost impossible to gloss over ideas or have the meeting’s purpose derailed, since all we’re doing is helping this person make significant progress in their research, and the document is right there in front of us. And when you commit to doing this regularly, you get that repetition effect.”

The importance of “useful social pressure”

The wager here is that regular, high-quality feedback (in person, where possible) will result in more productive work that leads to better outcomes—in this case, stronger research. After all, in academia, as in so many industries where intellectual isolation might occur, it’s not always easy to add value to a colleagues’ work when you see it so infrequently.

“Usually, when people present, you have an hour to catch up on a year’s worth of research, and most people are not great at seeing something for the very first time and offering pathbreaking comments,” Zettelmeyer says. “But when you see the work again and again in a concentrated setting in the company of others, you can actually contribute. And you feel that sense of investment.”

This setup also sets everyone up for periodic accountability. After all, if you know you have to give an update, you will want to be able to show off the progress you have made.

“We keep each other honest not through explicit mechanisms of control but through a kind of useful social pressure,” Zettelmeyer says.

Ideally, the kind of lab Zettelmeyer has in mind would preserve employees’ autonomy while offering them the benefits of community engagement—both emotionally and in terms of improving the quality of their work.

“It’s important to get together,” Zettelmeyer says. “We all learned that coming back from the pandemic. But we also want to create the kind of community where everyone can push each other to raise their game.”

To ensure that people get value out of this kind of lab setting, it is key to pick the scope carefully, Zettelmeyer says. Go too broad and declare all marketing topics in-bounds, and you risk having too many deep dives of little interest to lab members. Go too narrow with your topics, for example, “advertising auctions,” and you risk having only one or two members get value out of the lab.

“That is why we look for a scope such as ‘digital advertising,’ which is wide enough to attract a dozen faculty members but narrow enough to ensure everyone is interested in the deep dives.”

Featured Faculty

Nancy L. Ertle Professor of Marketing; Faculty Director, Program on Data Analytics at Kellogg

About the Writer

Andrew Warren is a writer based in Southern California.

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