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Does the Office Have a Future?

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As the world has emerged from the once-in-a-century experience of a global pandemic, we find that a new social contract is being created between office employees and employers. Most organizations have settled into an agreement that hybrid work balances management’s desire to see their subordinates with workers’ desires to reduce the time spent in mind-numbing commuting.

Still, there are unsettled questions about: 

  • How many days should employees come into the office? 
  • Should the company dictate which days are in-office days? 
  • Should employees be free to become remote workers, living in different states or even different countries if they wish? 
  • How do you keep the new office with dramatically reduced density from feeling like a ghost town? 
  • How do you maintain that “creative energy” that comes from high levels of human interaction? 

These issues will probably not get settled quickly or neatly, but while the office world is sorting things out it is worth taking a step back and considering the ways that the office was never the work nirvana that some say it was. 

Let's look at life before the pandemic—

  • Constant, ongoing interruptions were the order of the day. Except for those executives lucky enough to have private offices, doing work that required focus was a struggle. It wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, I am going home because I need to get some work done. The trend toward the new open plan of side-by-side workers facing each other across benches made it worse. Ironically this trend was led by technology companies whose employees had high needs for focus. 
  • In most cities, that daily commute was soul-draining. In an era of two-career families, juggling work and family activities produced major stress. And of course, it was no favor to the environment to pump hydrocarbons into the air for one to two hours a day, five days a week. 
  • And finally, what is company culture anyway? Can anybody define what constitutes good culture and does anyone know how to create it? 

But, before we put our office space up for sublease and send everybody to work from home,

Let’s consider where office space has or can serve an essential role:

Company Culture. There is actually some decent research on this that offers insight into what company culture is and how to nurture it. Professor Bradford Bell at Cornell University has studied the issue and describes company culture as the unwritten norms for behavior.

According to Bell, “Company culture is really about the connection that employees have, number one, to a company. Culture is important for signaling what companies value.“

Does the company value new independent thinking or is more importance placed on tradition? Is it okay to bend or break rules to achieve a beneficial outcome or is it critical to respect policies and procedures? Either might be valid depending on the industry, but stress and strife occur where there is misunderstanding within an organization. 

In the new world of hybrid or remote work, finding more opportunities for informal face-to-face interaction can provide an environment to nurture company culture. 

Human Connection. Human beings vary in their need for social interaction, but in general, people are social animals and need some periods of face-to-face interaction with others. In a work setting, this is important for building bonds between teammates which is a major factor in workplace engagement. Although video conferences are better than phone calls and time for informal sharing can be built into weekly video team meetings, the forced nature of the medium is not as good as the old-fashioned water cooler talk. 

Robust Collaboration. If ever there was an over-used and misused term, it might be “collaboration." The reality is that the majority of company meetings are one-way deliveries of information that could have been done by email or are perfectly fine with a Zoom or Teams meeting. However, there are certain types of meetings where an in-person format is much better than a video conference such as discussions where a high degree of interactivity is important like brainstorming, difficult topics such as a performance review where non-verbal feedback is crucial, and strategic planning where it may be essential to draw out everyone’s views.   

Learning and Mentoring. Perhaps the greatest casualties in the several years of remote work during the pandemic were employees starting their careers that were robbed of the opportunity to learn from their coworkers. Most jobs require knowledge that goes beyond what can be learned from a book, videos, or class. This real-world knowledge is most effectively gained in an informal, unstructured environment. This is easy in live settings, but difficult when working remotely.  

Innovation from Random Encounters. While eureka moments might be rare in the work environment research has shown that decision-making is better when siloed thinking is avoided. 

According to senior principal researcher at Microsoft, Dr. Nancy Baym, “When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”

It will be important for organizations with virtual or hybrid workplaces to consciously find other mechanisms where ideas can be exchanged in an unstructured setting. 

So, does the office have a future? Probably not in the way it existed before the pandemic. But as a place to gather, socialize, collaborate, and ideate, most definitely. 

Editor's Note: This piece is in collaboration with our corporate sustaining partner, FM:Systems. Michael Schley is an IFMA Fellow and founder of FM:Systems, a workplace technology company.