After more than a century of going to the office as an accepted way of life, the rules are being somewhat – but not totally – rewritten. The pandemic taught us we don’t absolutely have to go into an employer-provided space to work. But an abrupt departure from that routine has also revealed some of the benefits of that structure that we still want and need. For leadership teams, navigating a new way forward and articulating that to current and potential employees is still developing. So many of the challenges facing them today were not taught in business school or on the job by their own past mentors.
What senior leadership needs to understand about offices now.
Daily office life is no longer a foregone conclusion. C-suite professionals will need to gauge what their workplaces do for their employees and the organisation as a whole going forward. As they recognised employees didn’t necessarily need to come into the office, they rethought their workspaces in terms of what would make people want to come back. Think beyond mere functional reasons but emotional and psychological ones. I’ve written before about the loss of a commute also means we have given up the natural bookends of workday framed with a ride to work and one back to home. Many have also lost the division of physical space where work was ‘somewhere else’ and home was predominately a non-work environment. But even further – work is not just a place but a community, and humans are social creatures who need to connect with each other. Senior leaders need to understand how our workspaces provide that, and what kind of in-person work policies to put around it to make sure everyone benefits.
There is a meeting of the minds that need to happen both ways. Employees should be encouraged to think about how their needs have changed, what they prioritise and what they can be more flexible on. Leadership certainly needs to accept the declining popularity of being in an office five days per week. But it’s also reasonable to ask employees today to consider pay adjustments if they can live anywhere. Remote and hybrid work arrangements mean you may not need to live near an expensive city centre like London. The tradeoff is that compensation might reflect the fact that you can choose to be in a more affordable part of the country. This might not be the right ask of employees in some cases. What is key is for leadership teams to sit down and see if they share views about what an office does now. It is no longer about simply providing the workspace and materials to do a job. Rather consider the bigger picture of what the workplace does, from reinforcing the culture and mission of an organisation to fostering community and networking.
Leaders should consider three things that offices can provide now:
1) The actual work being done. While many office employees have the basic tools to work from home (a laptop, Wi-Fi, desk), there are situations where a professional corporate space is still useful. In-person meetings can offer a different spontaneity and organic conversation that online cannot. Teams can benefit from coming in for monthly (or even weekly) team meetings. Some offices still provide superior space to truly have a quiet, business-focused environment. If many of your workers live in an expensive urban area they may have smaller homes where their home office is doubling or tripling as shared workspace or dining or leisure areas. Simply having a permanent place to store files, equipment or just a dedicated private area still means something.
2) What are the employee experiences that a shared office provides? Many office jobs can be performed equally well from another location. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t need to ever be together. You might still want employees to come in for meetings with clients, suppliers or partners. Or your senior managers might feel they can better mentor newer mentors on site. Or your recent graduate hires might crave networking and shadowing opportunities in person. It is generally easier for already established relationships to be maintained via Zoom and other online collaboration tools than it is to build new relationships. Think about how many new hires (regardless of experience) joined during or since the pandemic – you might have a higher-than-average number of people with few pre-existing relationships. If learning corporate culture or best practices or other aspects of the job is easier when done in person, that is something to consider. There is no one perfect answer to these questions; the role of the leadership team is to ensure they are being asked.
3) What do people need psychologically? It’s important for everyone to remember that even if people don’t need to be in an office for any specific job-related reason, we all need to socialise with others at work. In part because we are affiliative beings, and the desire to connect has to be met. In a professional context, interacting face-to-face helps us build trust. And when we trust our peers and colleagues we have better outcomes. Again, leadership teams need to remember that what the company needs is fully productive workers, and right now we are re-learning how to be productive in different work environments. Don’t lose sight of the basic but crucial elements of building relationships. Companies thrive on great people, and people thrive when there is trust and aligned interests.
Leaders need to rethink offices. Maybe they aren’t even ‘offices’ anymore.
While sometimes an office by any other name is still just an office. It is interesting to see at least a handful of companies are beginning to rebrand their workspaces with names that better reflect what they do now. The word office is derived from the Latin officium which means the performance of a task. But as we just discussed, we are coming together at work now for almost any other reason than mere task performance. According to a recent Forbes article, Cisco has just unveiled a new Atlanta ‘collaboration space’ while Dropbox has renamed their areas ‘studios.’ The point is not strictly the new name, but the signal it makes – leaders are realising that going to work, is about so much more than the just the work.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.