The Future of the Office: Where Do We Go From Here?
One week, three conversations, all on the same topic.
The future of the office.
My first call was with a senior leader in financial services who made it clear that while he wasn’t entirely sure what to do when pandemic conditions allowed us to return to normal, he did not like the idea of the “hybrid office,” where employees would get to spend time at home and time in the head office.
Then, I spoke to an academic at one of the world’s most prestigious business schools who told me about research he was involved in that seemed to show that working from home was creating a very high level of stress for mid-level, front-line managers who really didn’t know how to do their jobs with remote teams.
Finally, I talked with an executive from a professional services firm who was almost giddy about the prospect of shuttering all the corporate offices so that his entire company could work from home on a permanent basis. Not only would this save money, he argued, but there were new productivity tools available that could help his company monitor his employees’ every keystroke within every minute of every working day.
After talking with all three, the only conclusion I could reach is that the “office” as we knew it before the arrival of COVID-19 is facing an existential crisis.
When it comes to WFH, be careful what you wish for
Most business organizations were not given a choice when the pandemic hit. The novel coronavirus was so contagious and so potentially dangerous, many governments simply ordered everyone who could work from home to abandon their offices.
At first blush, few people were concerned about abandoning the corporate office. For so long, so many people around the world were clamoring for the opportunity to work remotely. Why not give them what they wanted?
Although we didn’t have a choice in the matter, none of us really knew what impact it was going to have on companies and the people we employ. Some of the early, viable data is showing that working from home has affected us in many unforeseen—and even alarming—ways.
Effects on productivity
The first thing we’ve proven is that even with all the distractions that come with a home office, we can be as productive, if not more so, when working from home. But that’s not only because we squeeze more work out of each hour; it’s also because many of us are simply working longer.
Research published in the Harvard Business Review analyzed time-use diaries from 1,300 knowledge workers through the summers of 2019 and 2020. The study found that the subject workers saved about 41 minutes a day by not needing to commute.
However, while non-managers were able to reallocate that time to non-work activities, the workday for managers simply increased by 56 minutes. If the managers worked at bigger firms, they spent 22 minutes more in meetings and 16 minutes more responding to emails.
Ah yes, the video meeting
A NYU professor made headlines around the world last fall when he taught a class by dialing into Zoom from his phone while stuck in a malfunctioning elevator. It would turn out to be a pretty ironic tale.
The term “Zoom Fatigue” is now permanently embedded in the lexicon of the pandemic. The relative ease and low-cost of video-conferencing solutions sparked a global binge on Zoom and Teams meetings. Several research studies have confirmed we now attend more meetings than ever before, although each meeting is slightly shorter than the old, in-person ones.
A research team at Stanford University defined the causes of Zoom Fatigue thus: excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze; cognitive overload; increased self-evaluation from having to watch a video of yourself; and the sheer physical constraint of being forced to sit at your desk for hours on end as people try to find the mute button on their computers.
In the end, the Stanford researchers suggested that too many Zoom calls was likely worse, from a psychological perspective, than being trapped in an elevator.
Since we’re talking about psychological safety
Working from home, combined with the stress of the pandemic, has been bad for our overall psychological and physical safety. A survey last fall by multiple researchers at USC found two-thirds of respondents reported one or more physical ailments related to working from home, and three-quarters reported one new mental health issue.
And if you thought that social distancing was an antidote for toxic work environments, think again. Psychologists that study workplace environments report that toxicity can and is being cultivated through video conferencing.
Bottom line: the future includes an office and a home office
As we began to fully embrace the reality of full-time remote work, we also began to realize that the future will likely be one characterized by hybrid working arrangements.
Surveys of workers impacted by the pandemic clearly show that, notwithstanding Zoom fatigue and other psychological consequences, a strong majority want to work at home at least some of the time. And that means we’re going to have to fundamentally re-think why we need an office and what kind of office we need.
I like to break things down into what I call the three Cs of future workplace planning: culture, collaboration and communication. These are the key elements we need to consider when deciding who comes back to the office, what the approach looks like, and what kind of office they come back to.
1/ Culture. One of my main responsibilities is to build a positive, productive and caring culture. I’m not saying that’s impossible to do over a video call, but I know it is possible when I get to look my people in the eyes and find out what’s going on in their lives. This is particularly important when it comes to building a coaching culture among leaders. This is a culture where people work together to find solutions, and where everyone’s opinion and input matters. Although not impossible to do through videoconferencing, a coaching culture is very difficult to build when you don’t have opportunities for face-to-face interaction and the accumulation of social capital which goes with that. The culture I’m trying to build is profoundly informed by those interactions.
2/ Collaboration. Ours is a company, and an industry, that lives or dies by its ability to work together to generate new ideas and build new solutions. Again, you can do that via Zoom, but it is much easier and productive to do that in an office setting. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I have seen grow from a conversation involving someone who just “ducked their head” into someone else’s office. The sense of community we have in our office sparks collaboration, which is the lifeblood of creativity. And even more so in a world where collaboration is required not just with our colleagues, but also with our customers and partners—co-creation and breakthrough innovation is super-charged by proximity, by working together in an office.
3/ Communication. Many of us in the business world know psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule: only seven percent of what we absorb through communication comes from the spoken words, with 38 percent coming through tone and 55 percent through body language. And while Mehrabian’s theory likely did not consider the ramifications brought about by the Zoom revolution, there is no doubt that communication is impaired when we can only talk to each other through our computer screens. If we can imagine that the future involves at least some return-to-the-office scenarios, leaders are going to have to renew and refine their communication skills. Over the past year, you can be sure that a lot of what you were trying to say got lost in the Zoom translation.
I think the office environment will return; but I’m not sure any of us know exactly what it will look like. Everyone from landlords, to human resource professionals, to designers of office layouts and furniture, are working steadily to create an office that is fit for the future.
What I do know is that the future will be brighter for me when I get to see at least some of my team in person.