We’ve had offices for hundreds of years, in one form or another, from medieval monks in scriptoriums to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic designs. While they’ve evolved in size and aesthetic and location, they have shared the same goal: principally, offices provide a functional space for workers to accomplish occupational tasks. The workplace was about the actual resources that a person required to do their job, from decent lighting and ink wells to a sturdy desk and chair. Even into the 21st century, offices focused primarily on providing work-related tools, such as high-speed internet and teleconferencing equipment. Although tech start-ups and other young companies introduced foosball tables and organic snacks, the goal was to provide mental breaks and nutrition – in other words, boost worker productivity and retain employees in a competitive market. This article from 2000 in the Washington Post described at length the latest-gen video games in the office. The reason? ‘[C]ompanies are exploring ways to not only hold on to their talent but also attract new employees by promising a different work environment–an environment that doesn’t seem so, well, worky.’ In short, workplaces overwhelmingly focus on helping the company get what they need: attracting and keeping good talent. More specifically, keeping that talent in the employer-provided workplace.
And then in 2020, the workplace closed. Around the world. And in a fashion so comprehensive and sudden that it is hard to appreciate how quickly we discovered that, strictly speaking, workplaces were no longer necessary. If an office is about providing a physical location to do a primarily non-physical job, then offices are obsolete. Most white-collar employees can create office environments in their homes. They have wi-fi, a laptop and a smartphone. Beyond that, really a chair and table – or in a pinch, a sturdy bed – completes the space.
There were challenges to working outside of the workplace during the pandemic, of course. But they were mostly a reflection of sudden adaptation to working outside of offices. Other people – whether flatmates, spouses or children — were also suddenly home all day, making working conditions noisy and crowded. Some employees were not completely fluent in digital workspaces or teleconference tools. But that doesn’t change the fact that the traditional needs met by offices are no longer a reality. Leaders understood this intellectually before the pandemic. And now workers all know experientially because they lived that reality. The new challenge is for leaders to understand and leverage the actual purposes of shared working spaces. And it’s proving harder than it sounds.
Post-pandemic, everyone has struggled to truly appreciate the other benefits of an office. We had ceased coming for the paper and ink or printers and wifi: we came for the people. Offices bring together humans. Humans working together in the same space, towards a common cause, benefit each other (and the cause itself). Networking and mentoring and training and organic conversation and brainstorming were all identified as the reasons to go back to work by employees. Concerns around productivity also were cited but that was the view of leadership, not the employee (and the views are mixed on whether those concerns are well-founded). Humans are affiliative beings and being at a shared space with colleagues is important for the same reason that online dating conversations must lead to actual dates: we require in-person interaction in order to fully build trust, which leads to productive relationships.
The challenge for leaders now is the valid reasons for workplace today are not yet the priority when conversations are had about how to get people back to the office. Executive teams are still trying to improve workplaces through a lens of the old reasons for being at work. A client recently asked me how to recruit 3000 people back into the organisation’s workplace. He offered free lunches. And someone emailed – from home – asking what was on the menu.
The free lunches logic is based on an old resources-based concept, not a people-based one. In order to bring workers back the solution is simpler and more difficult: offices provide the opportunity to be with other humans. But it doesn’t have to be humans that are on the same team, or even belong to the same organisation. And the space doesn’t have to prioritise occupational resources. What most workers need now is a daytime destination that offers solutions to the challenges of working from home. For some, that’s finding the best space to do the job. But it goes beyond sufficient physical space and a comfortable chair. It likely means an aesthetically soothing space: whether through beautiful interior design or views of nature. It probably means a diversity of spaces, such as quiet rooms, conference rooms and rooms that aren’t for working at all. The latter might mean a place to work out, get a coffee, or meet someone for a drink. And above all, it must be a space that attracts other people, because in all cases it is the people themselves that are the ultimate benefit to a shared space.
The most powerful draw of the next space we work in will be the appeal of each other.
This is a tremendously difficult shift for executives. Everything one learned in business school (or from previous executives) is that the workplace serves the goals of the organisation. What is the best space for workers to be most productive, most efficient, most valuable in terms of the company’s needs? Conventional wisdom says it is a waste of investment to satisfy non-work needs of employees. And yet, leaders must learn to do exactly that. They must offer whatever can’t be replicated at home. They can and must provide what individuals can’t provide for themselves: other people. But what attracts other people is a daytime destination that goes beyond work needs. It is in some ways how we have always spent our days: working out, grabbing lunch, meeting for dinner. In the past, each of those needs were met by different institutions, in separate spaces.
Many organisations have given a slight nod to multipurpose space for many years: installing everything from sushi bars to swimming pools to keep workers at work. But it was generally inferior to high street versions and always secondary to resources that served company goals. But imagine a place to work with a fully kitted gym, a proper bar, gastropub-quality meals and usable outdoor space. Such a place does several things: it draws people out of their homes, it fufils most of their daytime needs and it reconnects them with others. All of which means workers will willingly spend most of the ‘workday’ in that space. Home offices cannot provide community and all of the interpersonal benefits that come from being in a shared space together. Leaders will have to fully reinvent, not simply modify, the old ideas about workspace, and most of all they will need to think of work as the beneficiary of such space, and not the driver of it.
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.