Where do offices go now?
Reading Time 7 mins
David Stenbeck explores the role traditional workplaces have for knowledge workers in the new world.
The pandemic has created a massive move to working from home, with a worldwide experiment that has demonstrated offices are no longer the only primary place of work. However, lack of physical interaction hinders connection, learning and collaboration that ultimately will lead to disconnected organisations and ineffective staff.
As the world moves back into our old places of work, or indeed hybrid working (a combination of office and remote working) how can we gain the benefits of working from anywhere whilst overcoming the challenges?
In essence we need to achieve the following:
- Offices of the future need to move from workplaces to culture spaces, in order to meet core human needs and build powerful sustainable organisations
- They need to become social anchors, schoolhouses and places of collaboration
- We must accelerate this by designing offices for human moments, established to drive connection whilst supporting the needs of the remote worker
This article summarises three key challenges people face when working from home. It looks at three core roles of the physical office, and key approaches to supporting remotely.
Our current situation: The world has demonstrated that working from home is not only viable, but also comes with many advantages, with organisations showing productivity improvements and staff enjoying improved work life balance and cost benefits. Consequently, the home is now truly a place of work for hundreds of millions of people for the first time. Not only has it been proved that people can work effectively, but pre-pandemic research established that 80% of staff in wealthy industrialised countries would like to do so, at least some of the time (up to 80% of staff in the industrialised world).
The complication: People also require human interaction to build connection and rapport, to learn from one another, and collaborate to solve their challenges. It has been shown, for example, that only 50 metres of distance at work creates a significant decrease in communication. Regular face-to-face interaction is vital for commitment, support and cooperation.
The question we need to answer: How do we meet these fundamental human needs, in a world where working from home is now a significant part of people’s lives?
The solution: We need to think differently about the position of our office in the new world, particularly for knowledge workers. Its role is no longer primarily that of a workplace but that of a culture space. It is a place where people want to go, to build our relationships, develop our abilities and find others who can help solve our issues, complimenting the work we do at home.
The home as a place of work
Pre-pandemic, the established wisdom was that the office was the primarily place of work, with working from home conducted only as a last resort, if at all. Throughout the pandemic, this thinking has been disproven, particularly for knowledge workers (such as roles in finance, management, professional services, and information sectors) where face-to-face interaction is not technically essential. To quote Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who studies remote work:
“One of the few great upsides of the pandemic is we’ve accelerated 25 years of drift toward working from home in one year.”
Furthermore, virtual working typically results in productivity improvements for organisations. Multiple studies show productivity increases, including a 13% increase in call centres, or 75% of employees expressing they are equally or more productive than when in the office.
Many staff are also enjoying the improved work/life balance. Research shows high demand for flexibility and the reduced stress it brings, and over 70% of people wanting to continue working from home. One such study even found that 23% of full-time employees are willing to take a pay cut of over ten percent in order to work from home at least some of the time.
However, staff engagement can also suffer, depending on how much virtual working is conducted. Working from home for four or five days a week has been shown to reduce engagement, while three days or fewer increased it. Many staff (71% in one study) feel less connected to their colleagues. A McKinsey study in 2020 showed that activities which are most difficult in virtual working include, assisting and caring for others, influencing, coaching and developing, and establishing interpersonal relationships.
The office as a cultural space
Consequently, those roles where virtual working is a practical option, should continue to work virtually. The office needs to find a new purpose that takes this into account. In essence, it needs to meet three core human needs:
- People need to belong and be with other people
- People need to learn and develop from others’ experience
- People need to collaborate and innovate as groups
The office as social anchor – build places so people can ‘belong’
Research has shown that how we make decisions is impacted not only by the information we receive, but also the environment in which it is processed. Critically this means that building rapport virtually is hampered by a lack of visual display of full human emotions, and the rigidity of video conferences. Physically being with other people significantly improves our ability to understand their moods and their ways of thinking, making it easier to build relationships and connect.
“Human moments” are of particular importance; a term psychiatrist Edward Hallowell uses to describe unplanned interactions that enable empathy, emotional connection and body language to support our discussions. Research suggests that our brain chemistry in these moments differs when compared to that experienced during transactional connections, which are more likely to occur in the virtual working world.
The office as a schoolhouse – Build places to learn
While much information required for working can be gained virtually, a significant proportion cannot, as people need others in order to learn effectively. This creates a challenge for staff who are not regularly seeing others in their organisation. They can access effective knowledge systems and understand many of the technical needs of their roles, but this misses part of the power of what makes us human - the ability to quickly learn from other people’s experiences. As a species we are remarkably adept at picking up skills, without having to experience all the steps ourselves. Furthermore, vital concepts are simply not recorded in our systems. For example: team culture, leadership, tips to making our roles effective and how to be a success. Even when we do make these explicit, it is difficult to learn them when we lack human contact.
The office as a hub for collaboration – building places to support each other
The way forward
It’s necessary to take an active approach in how we set up our offices. Instead of slipping back into the old ways of working, it is vital to design our physical spaces to support those needs we cannot meet remotely. We should design for human moments, lead in a way that drives connection, and mitigate remotely.
Design offices for human moments
Human interaction should be one of the core design principles of modern places of work, enabling people to interact in both private and open settings. We should design spaces so that they enhance group workshops, casual breakouts, in-depth discussions, and quick one-to-one chats. It requires physical layouts that allow and encourage these interactions, with a mix of open plan offices, pods, alcoves and communal areas.
Encourage and lead people to connect
As leaders, part of our new mindset should be to encourage our people to socialise and connect. To give people the remit to take the time to meet, interact and build relationships.
Furthermore, we should go out of our way to spend time with our people and colleagues; setting this as a core leadership priority, and using it to build relationships, learn and support.
Mitigate the challenges for remote working
Finally, we need to mitigate the drawbacks of remote working, using a balance of technology and strong leadership. Systems like Mural help us collaborate, workplace social media helps personal connection, and video calls enable us to see our colleagues. Indeed, for traditionally dispersed teams, virtual working can be significantly more collaborative than in the past. Leaders of all levels need to take a more proactive stance in how they interact with their teams, encouraging time for social interaction, collaboration and learning from one another.
Conclusion – moving from workplaces to culture spaces
Offices of the future need to move from workplaces to culture spaces by becoming social anchors, schoolhouses and places of collaboration.
We can accelerate this by designing offices for human moments, lead to enhance connection, and mitigate these challenges remotely.
As the world reopens and we move back to the old ways of working, we can embrace the power of working from anywhere whilst adapting our offices and our leadership. We must move away from the ways of working of the past and embrace the opportunities of the future, thereby truly gaining the benefits of hybrid working.