Are offices still necessary?

Whichever side of the debate you land on, let’s agree to make the future of work more humane, productive and sustainable.

Are offices still necessary?

COVID-19 has grabbed us all by the ankles, dangled us upside down, and proceeded to shake vigorously.

To say we’ve been “disrupted” would be too kind, especially for those who communicate for a living. Communicating amid a pandemic is like trying to direct traffic at night, during a sandstorm, in a village experiencing a blackout. No one knows exactly what’s happening, or where to go. It’s impossible to see ahead, and it’s unclear if we’ll ever truly “get back to normal.”

The big question is: Would it be such a bad thing to leave our pre-pandemic professional paradigm in the past? Should we even bother refilling offices or reopening our brick-and-mortar workplaces?

Esteemed PR authority Stephen Waddington tweeted a list of reasons why offices still matter, which struck a nerve and elicited a range of responses:

It’s certainly a good list that offers plenty with which to wrestle. Even the most ardent WFH defenders must admit that collaboration, community and social interaction suffer in the absence of shared space. The notion of “serendipity” is compelling, too, though surely Slack chats and emails yield their share of million-dollar ideas.

Regardless of where you fall on this office space debate, it’s wise to consider the implications and potential complications presented by both scenarios. Either way, communicators should prepare to compete in a brand-new business landscape.

Brian Dolan, writing in Quartz, suggests a significant overhaul of how employers should view and treat their workers—and how employees should plan to adjust in the days ahead. He says it’s crucial to:

Put the “office” into home offices. He writes, “Companies that want to support employees remotely will need to give thought to helping workers get the equipment they need as well as outfitting a good setting. (An allowance for things like desk lamps, standing desks, or ergonomic chairs might be a new expense line for your company, but it’s cheaper than fixed rent costs.)”

Employees, too, should prioritize their working area. Even if you’re on team “please let me return to the office ASAP,” you should create a space where you feel comfortable and happy working from home. Hopefully, the pandemic will end quickly, but who knows? Better to err on the side of setting up a home office you can enjoy for the long haul.

Design and décor will differ from person to person, but Dolan mentions the importance of having a door to help keep distractions out—and that you can close when the day’s work is done.

Build and maintain culture from a distance. What once came naturally by dint of spending huge amounts of time together now requires intentional effort. According to Dolan, “Now [culture] comes through how meetings are handled, how communications are managed, and how connections are made within and across departments.”

As pandemic restrictions ease, you might consider providing opportunities for those who miss in-person camaraderie. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You could rent a co-working site, or if you still have office space, open it up a couple days per week for small groups eager to return.

Dolan also references the importance of consistently enabling the possibility of those serendipitous, spontaneous moments Waddington brought to the fore on Twitter. “Along with preserving culture, there is a need to foster the serendipitous moments that lead to innovations, connections, and new directions. These are the discussions that happen outside of meetings, in the hallways, on the elevator, at the water cooler, or in other relaxed moments between intensive focus on projects. If it’s all long-distance, then time has to be set aside for calls or video conferencing that is intentionally relaxed and open.”

Essential traits for the future

Regardless of where we’ll be working from, certain traits for company leaders and communicators will remain essential. Ulysses Smith, also writing in Quartz, says you must be:

  • Inclusive: Adopt practical work-from-home policies for your people.
  • Interpersonal: Foster connections while staying remote.
  • Representative: Try to see and hear your employees in a new way.

Those traits and tactics will stand the test of time—whether working from home or in an office.

COMMENT

3 Responses to “Are offices still necessary?”

    MEGAN LICURSI says:

    While WFH works for mid- and senior-level executives, it leaves entry-level employees behind with fewer opportunities for continued learning, mentoring, socialization, etc. When the senior-level practitioners retire, will the exclusive WFH generation be as successful? I’d argue no.

    Bill Spaniel says:

    Some excellent points, Robby. I would add “celebration” to Waddington’s list. Working remotely and without in-person activity does not provide a venue to celebrate successes and for executives to show how they value employees. Yes, you can show appreciation in a Zoom call, but it is not quite the same as being commended for your work in a room full of your colleagues.

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