It’s not where you work, it’s how you work that matters.

I read a really great article a few weeks ago. Headlined “Why we need the office and why you might not realise it“, I agreed and disagreed with parts of it with equal vehemence.

In fact, it was often the same point I was agreeing with and disagreeing with. For example, I agree that human connection is really really really really important. However, I’m increasingly convinced that most offices are not automatically conducive to quality connections and fulfilling relationships. And I say this as an extrovert who really needs to be around people and values lots of casual interactions. That is, offices are designed around my needs as it is.

There is already an abundance of articles on whether the office is doomed. These are mostly written by professionals with desk jobs. There are also other articles telling us that the office is not dead yet, usually written by property developers and commercial estate agents.

Hidden voices

I strongly agree with the central argument of the post, which is that

“those advocating for working from home are those with a platform and those who lead their businesses are those that most often benefit from a WFH culture. I encourage you to think very carefully that those who may need the office the most might not feel confident to speak up for it.”

It’s always important to think about the voices that you’re not hearing. Young people in a flat share, or trying to work from their parents’ house, are probably not enjoying working from home as much as the boss is. It will be important for companies to have an alternative for people who can’t work at home, so as not to end up inadvertently discriminating against poorer employees.

However, the office, by which I mean a physical location that everyone has to travel to, almost certainly excludes more people than working from home does. Disability is an obvious bar – even if the office itself is accessible, there is the travelling element. In 2019 the Office for National Statistics reported that disabled people were a third less likely to be employed than non disabled (and this is a considerable improvement on the last report). Childcare is another significant barrier to work, in normal times anyway.

And yet, prior to the pandemic, how many employers really made allowances for people not being able to work in the office? How many companies reflect the national figures for disability in their employee numbers? I’ll hold my hands up here. I’ve been a senior manager for ten years. Before the pandemic I had never once thought about how we could make working from home a genuine full-time option. Yes, we talked about accessibility, but it was always in the context of making the office accessible, not thinking outside the box (office).

Caring and connection

The author of the post makes a couple of points around caring and connection. That without seeing each other regularly, you may not notice when something is wrong. And that we all need connection.

This is all true, but I’m not sure all workplaces deliver on this front. I worked for a mental health charity and we made a real point about talking about our mental health. We all had some level of mental health awareness through training or our work. This was by far the most enlightened place I’ve ever worked when it came to talking about and supporting people with their mental health. However, it was because of things that we actively did, not just because we were in the same space. I learned a huge amount in that role about how to support people and how to listen to them. I’m not perfect and still have lots to learn.

My point is that looking after each other takes time and willingness. If you’re lucky, you’ll work with empathetic people who like you and have the time and energy to look out for you. But maybe you won’t. Maybe everyone around you will be too stressed to notice your issues.

It probably highlights an issue that many of us only have our co-workers to connect with. And while it’s great if you can make meaningful connections in work, perhaps this is a good wake up call for us not to neglect our friendships out of work, and to remain active in different social networks.

Sharing information

The bits that I disagreed with most were around communication and sharing knowledge. The author points out that you miss out on lots of informal networking and information sharing if you’re not in the office.

“How can I eavesdrop on telephone calls?… How do we recreate serendipity upon which business relies – the chance meeting at Pret, the small talk after a meeting?”

I agree with the observation that often these are some of the ways that important conversations happen. However, relying on serendipity is no way to ensure functional communication or knowledge sharing. What if we were in the loo when the telephone call that we needed to overhear happened? What if one of us had to rush to another meeting so missed that crucial small talk?

The fact is, communication in most organisations could be improved. Informal networks often trump official communications channels. I’m a strong believer that communication failure is cock-up, not conspiracy. People don’t realise they know something that the other person doesn’t and might want to know. And no new technology or office configuration will ever solve that problem.

Productivity

There are some good points in here about productivity and work/ life balance. On the productivity front, it’s horses for courses really. I’m more productive at home. Pre-pandemic, I often incorporated working from home days into my work life in order to work on something specific. I have had to learn coping mechanisms for the office, for avoiding distractions, for staying focussed on particular tasks.

In fact, I laughed out loud at the suggestion that “when we can physically see someone, we know when it’s okay to disturb them”. This is emphatically not my experience in an office environment, to the extent that I gave up trying to do any detailed analytical work in the office in my last couple of jobs, as the interruption risk was too great. Whereas if I worked from home, I found that I was only ever disturbed when it was really urgent or important.

Of course, productivity is about more than sitting alone, outputting “stuff”. A meeting or conversation may move things forward much more efficiently than people working alone in silos. But I haven’t found online meetings to be any less productive than physical ones in this regard. And with online meetings there also seems to be a greater willingness to use other technology – eg capturing meeting notes from chats, sharing screens and editing documents together. All of which certainly makes me more productive.

Work/Life balance

I believe that achieving work/life balance requires two things. Your ability and desire to switch off, and your company’s respect for the concept. Both have to be present. I have always been strict about keeping work emails away from any of my personal devices. And I’ve always been lucky to work for places that respect my personal life. If I ask people to only contact me in an emergency, they don’t contact me.

I completely understand that for many people “leaving the office” is a psychological trigger which might help them switch off, mentally and technologically. However, it is possible to replace this with other psychological triggers. For example, go for a walk round the block before and after your working day. Spend some time configuring your computer and devices so that you can switch off work connections. Unplug the computer and hide it at the end of the day.

I also sympathise with people who work for companies that expect an instant response to an email or phone call. However, I don’t think a workspace is going to make a difference to this.

Let’s face it, a physical separation of office and home has not worked for years in terms of maintaining work/life balance, judging by the number of articles I’ve read about the “always on” culture.

The office is dead, long live the office

My other issue with the office is that in trying to create a workspace that “works” for everyone, we end up with identical corporate spaces. Do most people actually enjoy being in that space? Does it bring them joy? Probably not, but it doesn’t upset anyone too much either.

Even when companies try to jolly things up with pool tables, Edison bulbs and yellow cushions, it still tends to look contrived.

Perhaps the solution to all of this is that we keep the concept of the office, but instead of being somewhere you go to be with people in the same company, it’s somewhere you go to be with people who value the same things in a workspace as you do. Perhaps some people may want their creativity stoked with bright orange walls and a shared playlist. Others might want the nearest you can get to a sensory deprivation chamber. Some people like lots of lighting, other people hate it. Some people want to have frequent conversations with their next door neighbour. Others want no interruption.

Up to this point, we’ve had to design workspaces to cater for all tastes, and therefore don’t tend to actually appeal to anyone. We’ve now got an opportunity to design workspaces that people really enjoy being in.

But wherever we work, and hopefully we get a choice in that, the point is not so much where we work but how we work. If we are determined to collaborate with others and care about each other, then this will happen whether we are physically in the same place or not.

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