PSFI partner Mike Mister looks at the organisational and personal reasons for going back to an office and looks at the role of the office as a space for collaboration, connection and development.
How things have changed. The above sentiment, that would have been laughed at 9 months ago, is starting to be heard louder and more often. Changes in government health advice with regard to gatherings and congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic have presented a confused picture that has left little option for many to work from home or in other places but always in some sense of isolation. The use of technologically enabled media to facilitate collaboration has proliferated around the world and enabled changes to working practices that once were thought to be “too difficult”, have been very rapidly implemented.
But something is missing. On a recent webinar poll of over 600 people – 20% didn’t want to go back to the office. Which means that 80% DID want to go back in some shape or form. Clearly this was a relatively small sample – but it did clearly demonstrate that for some there is a real need for going back to the office. Which begs the very serious questions why do we have this need to go back to the office as a place where work can be done and what is it we want to be doing when we do get there?
If we consider reasons for going back into the office – we can view them at a number of levels. At an organisational level we can probably think that it is important, at some level, to have a physical presence so clients and staff know there is something “real” behind or alongside the internet presence. A physical location also clearly delineates a place of work, separate from home. And we should be very aware that for many, their home circumstances are not conducive to extended online working and the office provides a location which is specifically geared up for doing “work”. But perhaps the most important organisational reason is that the office provides a social space wherein the organisations culture will be grown and nurtured and shared amongst the people who are gathering together. In many ad hoc conversations over the last year, leaders are sharing their concern and worries about the erosion and possible degradation of organisational cultures that have taken many years to build.
Next we should perhaps consider the work that is being done by the people. A recent study by the School of Management at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University indicated that complicated tasks, requiring detailed thinking, may actually be hindered by home working. Whilst the research was conducted in an experimental condition, it suggests that excessive home working could be detrimental to the performance of cognitively demanding tasks. Perhaps some of the answer to this issue can be found in the serendipitous interactions that happen in the workplace. It is difficult to be spontaneous in a planned Zoom or Teams call – the implicit formality in booking a Zoom (or other technology ) call seems to work against the informal exchanges that spur the “ah ha” moments that seemed to make a difference.
At the level of the team we have known for some time that virtual team performance is invariably better when the members have had a chance to meet physically in the first instance. Clearly collaboration has been heightened during the time of the pandemic- as we have seen by the phenomenal achievements in vaccine production and the many executive teams who have done astounding work to keep their organisations functioning during these times of crisis. It could be argued that’s the strong interpersonal bonds that had been built prior to the crises enabled the technology mediated functioning to occur.
At an individual level we have seen that there are many employees who have struggled with their domestic arrangements which may not be ideal, nor conducive, for home working. They are keen to return to an office environment – (even if not for a full 7 hours a day, everyday of the week)- for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the simple fact next they are missing their peer groups and work colleagues. Secondly the absence of on the job training/ development is hindering their career progression and sense of achievement from the work they are having to undertake. Anecdotally there are many stories of senior executives who are working longer hours because they are not having to commute and doing the work themselves, rather than delegating to juniors, simply because the juniors are not physically near them.
So are we going to find ourselves heading back into offices in huge numbers anytime soon? Clearly the answer to that question will depend on the guidance offered by the authorities.
One thing is very clear though, we do need to find ways of safely getting people into physical spaces where they can collaborate, work together and build and maintain the relationships that are crucial for building cultures of success in our organisations. As Margaret Heffernan wrote in Beyond Measure- The Big Impact of Small Changes: “The significant factor in success is what happens between people. It’s the mortar, not the bricks, that counts.”
The challenge now for all of us is to find ways of reconnecting in our offices, however they are configured, so that we rebuild the mortar that binds our organisations together in a way that facilitates sustainability and success for the future.
Mike Mister is a partner at PSFI and specialises in the areas of development of leadership and change management. With over 30 years’ experience working internationally with senior leaders and their teams, his key interest is the intersection of strategy, commercial success and the organisation’s people agenda. He is also a Senior Fellow in the Human Capital Practice of The Conference Board and is the co-author of “How to Lead Smart People” with Arun Singh, a Senior Fellow with The Conference Board.