As a general manager of a consulting companyI have set myself the task of opening our first office in Colombia. Someone might ask: why go back to face-to-face work? Is the idea to go back to the office every day? This article is half an analysis of the design of a new workspace, and the other half a reflection on the challenges posed, in the world of technology, by the thought of a dedicated space of one's own.
The decision is not a simple one; there is a clear trend in the industry towards remote work. And it is that the talent shortage in the technology industry has put the option of working from anywhere for companies abroad on the table. I've written some articles about this that might interest you:
- Remote work or back to the office?
- Digital nomad: the end of an era
- How to win the war for IT talent?
- Labor trends for 2023
However, this article is focused on face-to-face work - and less on the debate whether or not we should return to face-to-face work or the advantages of virtual work.
Returning to the office after a period of remote work can be a challenging transition for some people. There can be changes in team dynamics, an increase in social interaction, and a change in the workplace. These changes certainly present challenges for all of us - whether we return to face-to-face work every day, or a few days a week - hybrid, as we like to call it.
Returning to the office also poses profound challenges for those who manage companies and teams. Face-to-face work is said to increase productivity - although the evidence seems ambiguous. For those who manage or lead, face-to-face is better; for those who don't have people in charge, productivity is better. It all depends on how you interpret work time. Whether you include time spent in the office or not would be a great example. For a manager, time starts and ends with office hours. For the employee without dependents, it starts the moment he/she leaves home.
5 reasons to return to the office
There are several reasons why companies may decide to return to the office after a period of remote work. Some of these reasons for favoring face-to-face work include:
- Improved collaboration and communication. Working in person can be more efficient for some tasks, especially when it comes to discussing and solving problems in a team.
- Mayor productivity. Some people may feel more motivated and productive when working in a structured office environment rather than at home.
- Improved work culture. Face-to-face work can help foster a better work culture and a sense of community in the workplace.
- Benefits for the mental health. Full-time remote work can be lonely and have a negative impact on some people's mental health. Returning to the office can help improve mental well-being by providing social interaction and a structured work environment.
- Improved information security. Working in a controlled office environment can help protect confidential company information. This may sound silly, but if you want to work for interesting clients on very exciting projects, keep in mind that confidentiality of information and securing communications is going to be a priority issue. I can't imagine Apple's new product designs traveling on WhatsApp or shared in open links on the web. Or working for Blue Origin and sending unsecured emails over the Internet with state-of-the-art propellant design.
It is important to keep in mind that every company and every person is different, and what works for one company or person may not work for another. Therefore, it is important to assess individual needs and preferences before making a decision about returning to the office.
Of these five reasons, I would like to highlight three major issues that, for me personally, invite me to create an office of my own: a) collaboration and increased creativity and productivity; b) culture and identity; and c) mental health,
Productivity, collaboration and creativity
Productivity, we could simplify it as the relationship between the time invested and the result obtained. If two people invest X number of hours in doing something, but one of them has a better or higher result, we could say that person is more productive - I said I was simplifying. With this simple analysis, we could say that there are only two ways to increase productivity, reduce the time invested or increase the perceived value of the result.
However, when we talk about teams or companies, we no longer talk about one person, and we look at things like processes, efficiency and collaboration. Many talk about synergy, as the ability of two or more people to collaborate and achieve exponential results. That is, two people do not produce twice as much, but more than twice as much, three people produce more than three times as much, and so on.
This is how collaborating is one of the tools to increase productivity - as a group. Anyone who has been in business knows that to go far, you have to work as a team. The question that arises is: does face-to-face work increase collaboration?
Collaboration and virtuality
We know that virtuality profoundly affects team dynamics. Virtuality reduces creativity and variability of work (it is perceived as repetitive) and promotes the creation of silos.. And this is no small thing. Collaborative tools tend to "simplify" access to the contacts we interact with most - for work or non-work purposes. This results in a kind of myopia that limits us to see only what we are used to seeing.
Virtuality is ideal for individual tasks, or very focused on intellectual tasks where collaboration is not so necessary. But can a company function only with repetitive and individual tasks? What is the purpose of entrepreneurship then, if you remember what I said, "if you want to go far, do it in a team"?
It is said that creativity is individual (the ability to generate new ideas) and innovation is business (the ability to transform ideas into new products, services, processes or tools). So, using simple logic, if we want more innovative companies we need more creative people - or at least with moments where creativity is triggered - and spaces where those ideas mix with others and receive the key feedback to transform into innovation. The first step - being creative - maybe you can achieve it at home in your pajamas, but the second step will require collaboration and teamwork spaces. I don't know if it happens to you, but I don't think that Zoom or Teams videoconferencing is the ideal space to be creative and to collaborate?
Culture and identity
Returning to face-to-face work promotes what is known as a "sense of belonging". If you can do your work at home, without going out, what's the point of doing it for a particular company. The absence of identity promotes staff turnover and leads in the long run to a mercenary sense of work.
While the work is paid, it doesn't mean that you can't tie your values and future projection to the company you work for. This has been somewhat lost, and the purpose of remote work is to get as much money as possible to work from wherever we please.
Professional growth and development
But if your work can be done virtually, from anywhere, and hopefully with little human interaction, why should a company invest in you? why develop your skills as a leader or expert? what is the point of promoting you to new positions and challenges?
Face-to-face work poses social interaction challenges that, like it or not, are key to determining the next step in our careers - social interaction provides valuable information for everyone: employees who want to take their next step (new projects, another position, leading teams, developing a new technical skill) and for leaders who are getting up close and personal with other team members. The latter is critical to support people's professional development. How can I provide honest feedback or offer an attractive future if I don't know the person behind the position at all?
Anyone resisting this reality should read more. With the pandemic and remote work, many professionals - and particularly young people - have suffered a deterioration in their mental health. The feeling of isolation and guilt are on the rise. These feelings of "not doing enough" lead most people to overcompensate - that is, to overwork.
Mental health raises individual challenges - I as a person how do I take care of myself - and as leaders, what decisions or actions do we take as a team to mitigate the negative impact and promote caring and healing spaces. Teleworking has implications physical and mental that we should not discard. Therefore, we must think of face-to-face work and the office as a space for social interaction that, by its very use, helps to mitigate the risks mentioned above.
Role of leadership in face-to-face work
As leaders of a "back to the office" process - one or several days a month - there are some important considerations:
- Anxiety and resistance to changeSome employees may feel anxiety or resistance to change due to uncertainty about what returning to the office will be like or due to concerns about health and well-being. Leaders should be sensitive to these feelings and provide support and clear communication.
- Logistical problems: Returning to the office can involve logistical issues, such as ensuring safety and social distance in the workplace, and ensuring that health and safety regulations and guidelines are met. Leaders must be proactive in addressing these issues and provide clear, up-to-date information to employees.
- Equity issuesSome employees may have difficulty returning to the office due to family responsibilities or health problems. There is evidence that for women they still take on much of the household responsibilities - such as childcare. And in this sense, returning to the office may force some of the population to resign. Leaders must be sensitive to these situations and provide flexible work solutions to ensure equity. The particularities of each member must be understood before forcefully demanding a total return to face-to-face work. Likewise, behaviors and prejudices tend to soften in the virtual world, but may surface with force when returning to the office. On a video call with virtual backgrounds, we all look the same, but perhaps not face-to-face, and our differences - so valuable for diversity - may become more apparent and trigger unexpected behaviors in some people.
- Productivity problemsEmployees may face productivity issues when returning to the office after a period of remote work. Leaders must provide support and resources to help employees adapt to the change and maximize productivity.
- Cultural problemsReturn to the office can affect team dynamics and work culture. Leaders should be aware of these changes and work to foster a positive and collaborative work environment.
Likewise, the face-to-face work involves:
- The design of a pleasant work area.
- The promotion of professional - why not personal - growth and development activities.
- The construction of feedback, mentoring and coaching spaces that can strengthen relationships between leaders and team members.
The new office and face-to-face work
The traditional office poses several challenges. And its design realization can seem contradictory and negationist. So let's take it one step at a time.
Teleworkers and office attendance
The office today is a space to collaborate, promote creativity and socialize. If your work is very individual, going to the office every day probably doesn't make much sense - especially not in formal attire as it did not so long ago.
Likewise, requiring people who live in other cities or at a great distance (or time) from the office does not make much sense either. Here it is important to clarify that the office should be a place relatively close to your place of residence - I assume no more than one hour of commuting time.
Thanks to a conversation with my brother, I developed a Google Sheets sheet that calculates the average transportation time and distance for a set of employees. Thus, choosing the location of the office is a more objective and targeted exercise to reduce the impact on each individual and on the environment - less transit time is consumption and less pollution.
Office location should not be a purely economic decision. The time of the attendees, the fuel consumption, the number of trips or public transportation transfers to get to the office. What percentage of people expect to attend the office?
One large office or many offices
This depends a lot on the nature of the work, in my case, I have small teams and even "rangers" - people who work alone for clients or remote teams. So for me there's no argument, it's better to have several small offices spread across the city - or several cities - than one big office where I assume everyone has to come to work.
If you regularly read my articles you know that I am very struck by the concept proposed by Robin Dunbar that assumes a limit in the cognitive capacity of most people to maintain quality relationships with other people. A sort of upper limit on the number of close friends you can have. This concept is known as Dunbar number and can be used to set the size limit of a collaborative workspace.
Final considerations of face-to-face work
In an ideal world I would like to have small offices for 100 or 200 people. With nice spaces to work collaboratively and private spaces to have private conversations and calls.
I envision the power to promote relocations (within the same country or city) of the most committed members - a sort of relocation benefit for the most valuable members of the company to live within 5 to 15 minutes of the office (hopefully walking).
Attending the office should not be a problem. For me, it is a serious mistake to say that the physical office is destined to disappear. It is as stupid as saying that going to college is useless. While there is no "one-size fits all" and the world offers different paths to success, most should value some of their shared time with co-workers, just as sharing with fellow students can help with soft skills in the future, and sharing with teachers can help you discover your true passion.
If you have any experiences about returning to the office and face-to-face work, as well as stories about time in the office, I invite and appreciate if you share them here as comments.
Alberto, I think it is not an easy decision, it is not black and white. Any change implies a transition stage to adapt. Working at home could be a stimulus for those who achieve the objectives, if the virtuality stimulates them. Young people want to socialize, and at home it will be complicated, especially if you live out of town. Belonging to a team is stimulating, discussing a topic, sometimes by scratching a paper or a board is exciting. Going out to lunch in a group, leaving the office on Fridays to eat wings and drink beer,
We need to play soccer or have a good time. I think we should do something like PMI did, let's strengthen values, principles, behavioral bases, then the decision to be made is less traumatic. Right now I would make offices and let everyone decide whether home or office, with rules and incentives. But I would also schedule two general and "mandatory" periodic meetings without using that word, one to talk about everything and another one to talk about team measures and results.
Friend James. Thanks for reading the article and, as you rightly comment, it's not an easy decision. IMHO the real challenge is getting people to want to come to the office and actually see value in doing so, not just forcing them to come back. However, there is also a responsibility on leaders to make visible the value of coming to the office and its benefits - and I don't mean just seeing them sitting around working.