You’ll have noticed that all the messaging recently about schools re-opening and deserted cities pleads for us to “return to work”. For most of us, the last 6 months in lockdown has proved conclusively that work is something you do, not somewhere you go. We’re at work, we never left, we’re just not at the office.
Do we need the expense of an office?
Of course it hasn’t been seamless – the exponential rise of email traffic, the strain of having to keep a bright-eyed ‘I’m totally focussed and paying attention’ look on your face for an hour-long video call and the difficulty of getting anything done at all amid the just-staying-in-touch check-ins. But by any measure of success, we’ve done it, and done it well. So maybe unsurprisingly, more than one of my clients have raised the question “Do we even need the expense of an office now we’ve proved we can work from home?”
For those of you in a hurry, (spoiler alert) yes – we do. For those of you with a little more time, I’d like to answer by looking at where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.
When the lockdown order came, we grabbed our furry pencil cases and headed home. We left behind us our assigned desk with ergonomic chair, phone, and two monitors. Some of us left belongings in our lockers or personal offices, many of us left family photos, cherished mugs and a never-used-but-good-to-have stash of paper napkins from Pret. We gave it all up for a seat at the kitchen table, a small laptop screen and safety. And we’ve made it work. So why go back at all?
Because once you have the ability to do your work anywhere, the primary function of the office is as a source of interaction, stimulation and connection. It is where we display our culture most strongly, where we connect to each other most openly, where we can support each other most easily.
The challenges of transitioning to home working
Some of my clients’ employees had never worked a single day from home before. One senior manager told me he’d experienced the whole emotional rollercoaster of anxiety, excitement, loneliness, inspiration and ultimately triumph all in the first day. People managers have had to find new ways to understand what their teams are doing and how they can help. Teams have had to find ways to onboard new starters, share knowledge and discuss Tiger King.
Individuals have had to find where the WIFI signal is strongest, where the dog isn’t barking, and how to thank your flatmate for your cup of tea without breaking eye contact with the laptop camera. These in-at-the-deep-end experiences have been helpful because we’ve had to get used to virtual collaboration, holding each other accountable and making good choices, but no doubt some concerns about home-working have also proved to be well-founded.
How are companies responding?
From the corporate perspective, it is certainly harder to support new starters, to ensure knowledge is shared effectively, to overcome communication problems and build trust where it is lacking, particularly between teams rather than within them. Teams have found that the very best online collaboration tools (and I love Miro.com) can’t reproduce exactly the energy of multiple people standing up at whiteboards with pens and post-it notes. And as individuals, some of us have become isolated and lonely, while others have found the blending of work, home and family chaotic and overwhelming.
For the first group, at least two companies I work with have re-opened a limited, distanced number of desks in their office to support the wellbeing of employees who have really struggled alone. For the second group, the hopes that back-to-school will dramatically reduce the drain on our energy and attention are high. But although we want things to change, I don’t know anyone except the CEOs and coffee shop owners who want to go ‘back’. We’ve tasted freedom, and now what we demand is a hybrid solution, the best of both home and office that supports us to be individuals and also part of an effective community of practice.
Is the answer a hybrid solution?
Multiple surveys of companies during the lockdown indicate that most will continue to have a more flexible approach to home-working when they re-open the office. I’d like to see that approach based on the principle that you work in whatever way makes you and others most effective. It requires some thought to really understand the inter-dependencies between our work and someone else’s, our productivity and someone else’s, but we’re already learning that now.
We all know colleagues who are basically the department Wiki; full of information, history and process knowledge. They might actually be more productive when they’re not being asked questions every 5 minutes, but if they stay away too long, the absence of their knowledge slows everyone else up. Some of us are based in one team but actually work more closely with another one, or with a cross-functional project group. Being able to spend a day working together as a project team, not in meetings but just being in close proximity, can make a big difference to how well the group interacts and collaborates.
Flexibility is key
Being flexible about where and when people work, within mutually understood boundaries, helps everyone. Companies who make it part of their culture to be curious, to encourage experimentation with a different way of doing things, who allow themselves to try, make mistakes, learn and do better next time will thrive commercially and so will their people. Those attributes are hard to nurture from our kitchen tables, they need a supportive, challenging, honest community that only an office can really deliver.
So it’s ok to agree that certain days, or meetings, or people will be in the office. It’s even better if you can reach that agreement through a wide-ranging discussion where everyone gets to explore what impact their choices have. And when we return to work post-lockdown, full of the possibilities of home-working, we still have a few lessons to learn. Online meetings for example when everyone is online, are way easier and more effective than meetings where half of you are online and the others are all in the same meeting room, laughing at a joke the online participants didn’t hear and spending the first 12 minutes handing out the pastries the online joiners can’t eat.
Once you decide there’s still a role for an office, the question is how much or little do you need to invest to deliver those benefits? Do you need a barista and stale mints in a bowl for your visitors? Do you need to do Friday Free Beers just because Facebook does? It’s fine if the answer is yes – but if you currently perhaps spend more than you need to on stuff that doesn’t really add value, now could be the perfect time to announce a regime change. It’s not like any of us have a barista at home so we’ve been through the utter misery of having a Nespresso with semi-skimmed instead of our Oat Milk Flat White. We’ve done the cold turkey, we’ll cope if we have to.
What could a hybrid office space look like?
Maybe you could think about densifying; unassigning desks so your capacity reflects something closer to the actual number of bottoms you ever get in the office rather than the theoretical maximum. Use some of the freed-up space to add more of the ever-popular diner booths and rooms for 1-2 people, and give the rest of the space back to the landlord as soon as you can. A right-size office in the right location with the right facilities, finished to a good standard with enough toilets, assiduous cleaning and high quality self-serve coffee makes people feel proud, appreciated and also reassured that their senior management team have good judgement; no-one wants to be made redundant because the CEO’s office is the size of football pitch and the artwork in Reception is real.
See? Gold plated phone cover but definitely just Nespresso in that cup…
Ask what people want
We may yet have more time away from the office to reflect on all this. Now working from home has normalised, it’s a good time to ask your staff, and even your customers, what they miss about the old office, and what they don’t. It may provide opportunities to reduce costs, increase engagement and strengthen productivity, and let’s face it, we’re all going to need to do that going forward…
About the author
Sophie Patrikios started her career working with premium consumer brands with equally high aspirations as employer brands: Mars Confectionery, The Walt Disney Company and The LEGO Group. She now helps companies make significant changes to their way of working so that their values are reflected in their day to day culture. An experienced facilitator, coach, consultant and change agent, she takes a pragmatic approach combining commercialism, compassion and community