What is the office actually good for? Questioning workplace myths as the return-to-office debate heats up

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed June 11, 2021 Audio mode
Summary:
Why is culture-building dependent on water coolers? Is the centralized office a failure of imagination, or the key to sparking collaboration amongst Zoom-fatigued workers? Here's a roundup of Big Tech return-to-office news - and my own twist on the future of work.

question mark on sticky note

The return-to-office debate has become downright combustible - and confusing. That doesn't diminish its importance.

We're at the cusp of an opportunity to either re-invent white collar work, or revert to an unimaginative normal. Along that spectrum, where will we land?

My colleague Derek du Preez believes command-and-control types are in for a rude awakening. In Those pushing return of the five day office week will lose in the end - talent will dictate the terms, he writes:

A report this morning on the BBC has argued that the five day office week will return 'within two years'. This thinking is lazy at best, embarrassing at worst.

I wholeheartedly agree with the latter sentence, but I worry about the first sentence becoming a reality. On the surface, recent Big Tech office policy announcements seem to support du Preez's views:

Seems like a remote work trend? Perhaps, but the fine print isn't as clear. Yes, all Facebook employees can request remote work, but if it isn't approved, employees will be expected to be on-site half the time. As for Apple employees, if they aren't willing to back up their "push back" by actually leaving Apple in significant droves, that strongly-worded letter will become a historical footnote. But here's the bigger problem:

Unless companies take bold steps to put remote workers on equal political footing with their schmoozing office colleagues, I believe the pressure to "not miss out" on the informal advancement opportunities in the office will push remote workers back to the fringes, while most suck it up for the commuting grind - in fear of career displacement.

Now, let's be clear: the fringes are not necessarily a bad place to be. You can use that remote fringe to create differentiating IP, and build an industry reputation on social channels, thereby re-inventing your career. I've managed to save my own bacon many times with those tactics. Heck, we built diginomica that way. But I worry about the unequal footing that could sink so-called "flexible" work arrangements.

Let me make my biases clear: I'm a remote work advocate, or, to be more accurate, a "flexible work" advocate. I am hoping for two things:

  • That employers truly offer a range of working models - may the models with the highest levels of employee well-being win (if you get well-being right, productivity will come along for the ride).
  • I am rooting for remote/flexible work to triumph over knee-jerk office "culture," and spirit-crushing commutes.

Culture-building and collaboration - office myths or realities?

Some argue we should begin with a more radical question:

What is the office good for, anyhow?

I believe that the office is superior for some work objectives, but only for a handful of things - far less than others contend. Supposedly the office is superior for collaboration. But is it? As du Preez wrote: 

A hybrid world will likely become the most popular model for forward-thinking organizations, ones that look to their office space to become hubs for collaboration, team building and fostering culture.

Sounds right. But in the letter from Apple employees to management, they write:

Orgs are rarely co-located within walking distance, let alone in the same building, meaning our best collaboration has always required remote communication with teams in other offices and across timezones, since long before the pandemic. We encourage distributed work from our business partners, and we've been a remote-communication necessary company for some time, a vision of the future that Steve Jobs himself predicated in an interview from 1990. This may explain how mandatory out-of-office work enabled tearing down cross-functional communication barriers to deliver even better results.

"Culture building" is the most common defense of the office, but is it really culture-building? Or is it the quiet contentment managers feel when they see your head in a cube? As per my potshot at WeWork's CEO:

I'm not alone:

So if we strip out "collaboration" and "culture" from the so-called benefits of office work, what else is left? I'll take it further: why do we need a central office? Even if the office has a purpose, why wouldn't we want to create/rent co-working spaces and office hot spots where our remote workers live? Once you eliminate a grueling commute, the experience of "office work" changes drastically.

My take - what is the office actually good for?

Every so often, I do my best to disrupt DisrupTV, hosted by Ray Wang and Vala Afshar. In my last appearance on the future of work, I laid out the return-to-office issues employers are underestimating:

I'll delineate each of these in my next return-to-office piece, but as I vented on DisrupTV:

  • How essential is the office for culture-building? Is our company culture so weak and fragile, or so over the top, that we have to be in the office to get a culture injection, or suck down massive amounts of Koolaid?
  • " You need to be in the office to navigate politics and climb the ladder" - Well, perhaps, but we're not exactly getting diverse and exciting leadership teams by doing it that way, are we?

So what is the office good for? We can debate culture-building and collaboration. Personal preferences aside, I believe the core office value is:

Mentoring and onboarding junior employees - and for workers looking to build their community and networks (especially, but not only, younger workers. Perhaps you could argue that certain personality types, aka extroverts, thrive in office settings. Just so long as you also include the opposite, e.g. stay-at-home parents and disabled workers unable to commute).

The career sessions I've conducted with college graduates this year have convinced me: remote work is a difficult road for those entering a new field. I think back to my formative start as the founding editor of a community paper. It was the career breakthrough that rescued me from the purgatory of the service industry slog. That magical time simply would not have translated to a remote work setting. Socialization was everything then.

From what I can tell, the leading collaboration providers are coming to a similar conclusion. As my colleague Phil Wainewright wrote in Team 21 - Atlassian, Slack and Zoom CEOs reflect on a year of distributed teamwork:

In this new world, the office becomes a place to socialize rather than the primary place that work gets done.

No, that doesn't negate the office, but it does imply a drastic re-invention. Wainewright quotes Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes:

We meet to socialize much more at Atlassian now, whereas we used to meet to work. Once you separate those, you end up with very different constructs in office layouts and stuff over time.

As I see it, this translates to three things:

  1. Rethink the office - both its purpose and its design. Question assumptions about what the office is good for. Keep the ones that stick to the wall for your company.
  2. Re-evaluate the central office concept - consider decentralized collaboration spaces and "hot spots."
  3. Before you pat yourself on the back for your hybrid/flexible office policy, make sure that remote workers aren't relegated to second-class participants.

Some companies are taking point #2 further. Example: Zoho and its pursuit of transnational localism. Yeah, that's a different vision of work: infuse rural communities with sustainable economies and tech talent. Oh, and upskill local talent as well. As Wainewright wrote:

While some business leaders argue that the only way to maintain their corporate culture is through a return to city-center office towers, Zoho is doubling down on a policy of distributing its workforce across small local hubs, often in rural areas.

As for the third point, leveling the remote playing field, technology can surely help - perhaps even holograms (see: Will your boss make you a hologram?). It's encouraging to see collaboration players pushing into hybrid tech. Wainewright again:

The need for social interaction inevitably leads to a hybrid arrangement where people will still need places to meet even while others work elsewhere, says Yuan. Technology tools will therefore have to evolve to support these new patterns of work, so that for example people who are calling in to join a group gathered in a conference room will feel as present as those who are physically there. "A lot of feature enhancement, a lot of a product innovation, can truly enable the hybrid," he suggests.

This leaves open the challenge of effective return-to-office policies - and what employers are overlooking. I'll get to that next time.

Updated, 7am UK time, June 12, with a number of tweaks for reading clarity.

Image credit - Question mark on a sticky note against grained wood - by @marekuliasz, via Fotolia.com

Disclosure - Zoho is a diginomica premier partner.