The job I had before going out on my own was at Fairview Health Services, where we changed from a traditional office (walls and doors) to an open space—no walls, very few offices.
It didn’t go over well.
Almost seven years later, I’m removed from the traditional office. I work at home many days. Coffee shops. My local YMCA. A local co-working spot. My idea of an office is non-traditional.
In those years the open office has taken off. According to the International Facilities Management Association, 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.
We’re seeing more articles like this one from The Washington Post, shared widely last month. And a lot more frustrated people (like me and my colleagues seven years ago), too.
The open office may be in its heyday, but I say a different office is the future of PR.
The virtual office.
In articles I’ve read lately, the chief complaint is open offices hurt productivity. That’s not surprising. What’s the one thing you hear from people who work in an office? “I can get more done in a few hours working at home than I can in a full day at the office.” Noisy offices aren’t productive.
Another big complaint people voice about work: The commute. If you live in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, or Washington, D.C., you know that. The commute is a killer. Some folks spend two or three hours a day in the car or on a train. That’s no way to live. It destroys your productivity.
One of the big reasons proponents back the open office: It fosters collaboration. I’ll buy that (I haven’t seen proof, but it makes sense). But do we have to be face-to-face to collaborate? Can’t we collaborate virtually?
The virtual office deals with each of these issues:
1. You’re far more productive when you work remotely. Your head is down. You’re focused. You have your list. No distractions (or fewer distractions).
2. No commute! How many winter mornings I’ve woken up to six inches of snow and said to myself, “I don’t have to get in the car today.” No commute = two to three more hours of productivity a day.
3. Collaboration is as easy from my dining room table as it is from an open cube. OK, maybe not “as easy,” but I’ll take the trade-off, given No. 1 and No. 2 above. Wouldn’t you if you were an employer?
You see this trend in successful companies. Ask anyone who works for Fast Horse in Minneapolis how it works for them. FH was one of the very early adopters. They call it “hot desking.” It gives employees the freedom to work where they want, when they want. It says: Get your work done-I don’t care how or where you do it.
I think about my experience as an independent consultant. I don’t even have an office. I have a desk at home, but it’s hardly an office. More often, I work in one of the following:
- On my porch
- In my bedroom from an easy chair (because it’s more comfortable and airy upstairs—we have a dormer with skylights)
- At my dining room table (easiest)
- At the coffee shop (frequently)
- At the YMCA (good wi-fi, very quiet)
- At CoCo (the “co-working spot” above; I like it every so often)
I’m really productive. I plow through work at any of these (save CoCo). Why? Because I’m focused—no interruptions. And I save “dead time.”
Why don’t more companies do this? I’ve asked that many times. Lack of trust is largely to blame. Older generations (managers and leaders) still don’t trust virtual. I think many see it as an opportunity to cheat, and get personal things done.
My comeback: Who cares? Employees will do personal stuff if allowed to work from home. Know what? They’ll be far more productive. Why do you care if they do laundry as long as they knock out that report by 3 p.m.
We’re going to hit a tipping point soon. The companies who adopt virtual work will reap business advantages—you already see it in our industry (see Fast Horse). Those who don’t see it won’t be able to attract and retain talent. Ask any millennial which option they’d prefer. As those millennials have kids, that number will swing heavily to virtual.
I’m not saying anything groundbreaking. But then why do we hear so much about open workplaces, and so little about virtual work?
Why don’t more companies adopt virtual work?
It baffles me.
A version of this article first appeared on Communications Conversations.