Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Can Remote Work Usher in a New Era of Creativity?

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

This post is a version of a talk I gave for Qube as part of their Remote Working Thought Leaders Summit. It brings together some content from recent posts with some additional thoughts.

My personal take on innovation is that we sometimes focus too much on adding technology rather than removing barriers to reveal the things that people truly value.

A good example at the moment is that it’s easier to speak to a consultant or your GP than it ever has been before. By necessity COVID has forced them onto the phone rather seeing people face to face. The barriers around them have been removed, if only temporarily. This has largely been achieved without new technology.

My second take is we sometimes focus as organisations on searching for ideas rather than great problems to solve.

And given the Bank of England has forecast the deepest recession in 300 years plus we have a rapidly ageing population, increased automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. I’d say we have enough problems to keep us busy. 

One of the things I’m wondering and the purpose of taking up your time is I’m thinking about how remote work can play it’s part in helping us tackle some of those challenges.  How could it increase our mental bandwidth so we can solve the great problems of our time?

As a side story – just after the UK lockdown started I found myself undergoing emergency surgery. I was nervous about going into hospital during the what was predicted to be the worst period of the virus and it was only my partner and some paramedics who forced me , quite literally , into an ambulance. 

So I had eleven days in isolation, major surgery and my family and friends were unable to visit. I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis. I also had to have eight weeks off work for the first time in my career. 

I’ve been interested in remote working and have written about it and experimented with it for the past six years. So it’s a source of some frustration that I missed the beginnings of the biggest workplace experiment we’ve ever seen!

And I’m scared we are going to mess this once in a lifetime opportunity up.

I think it important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment. We have to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the impact on their productivity.

However, COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which I know people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

The diagram from Matt Mullenweg illustrates the challenge of remote work quite well. Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon and I walk through them in my previous post.

Importantly Matt says that’s there’s a pain barrier at levels 2+3 where things can be more chaotic and less productive than being in an office. My take is a lot of companies are struggling to move forward from the chaos and it’s because of this: we lack the necessary collaboration skills or the incentive for collaboration just isn’t there.

Truth is — most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. It’s only recently that collaboration has been measured at schools.  Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving. If you’re above the age 30 – it’s likely you won’t have been taught it at all.

Our companies are not great at collaboration , internally, with partners and with communities. Almost all of our organisational targets and performance frameworks reward short term outcomes rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

So our companies must invest in and nurture collaboration skills. 

Let’s briefly look at communities.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that organisations simply can’t.

To return to my point earlier – this has been achieved by taking things away not by adding new things in. Communities have stepped into the gaps left by institutions. 

I’m inspired by the work of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who challenged the practice of adding more into communities with his idea of “Shared Spaces”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

So trusting communities to do the right thing – to work with each other to solve problems – has to be a foundation of our next normal.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else – both in our working lives and in our communities. We’ve started thinking about what a set of principles for collaborative working would look like that helps us move to another level.

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status obsessed cultures are incompatible with relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Many people are claiming to have successfully rolled out remote working because they’ve got Microsoft Teams. That’s just the technology.

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

We won’t reach nirvana by accident – only through design.

Nirvana or Business As Usual? Navigating The New Future Of Work

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

With the easing of lockdown measures now in full swing we are coming to the end of the largest global work experiment we’ve ever seen.

As I’ve written previously it is vitally important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of many of our civil liberties. Any evaluation has to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the subsequent impact on their productivity.

COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

We’ve finally challenged the office orthodoxy, and it’s our choice where we go from here.

Stay remote?

Back to the office?

Or adopt a hybrid model.

For a fairly conservative view you could look at the new report from Xerox, The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era. Designed to uncover how IT decision makers are addressing these major considerations in a highly fluid environment 600 IT leaders were surveyed.

Depressingly, it estimates that 82 percent of the workforce in respondents’ organisations will have made a full return to the office in 12 to 18 months. For those of us who were asking whether offices would still exist that’s a healthy vote in favour of the status quo.

To be fair, the report also notes that the softening of employer attitudes toward remote working – with managers realising ‘hey, they actually do work without us bosses looking over their shoulder’. It’s this realisation – and the sight of scores of managers littering LinkedIn and Twitter with excitable Zoom and Teams selfies – that could usher in the hybrid workplace with employees working remotely all, some or none of the time depending on their role.

It’s always useful for us remote work laggards to listen to people who have been working in a distributed fashion long before the pandemic.

As Matt Mullenweg discusses in his conversation with Sam Harris, he has seen companies make the transition for small (10 people) to large (1500+) with an evolving set of work principles.

As Matt says – any company who can enable employees to work in a distributed environment now has a moral imperative to do so. Forcing a commute is worse for the planet and worse for personal wellbeing. It’s no longer the act of a responsible employer.

Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon:

  1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than they did.
  2. The first level is where most businesses were pre COVID, 98% reckons Matt. There’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. Level one companies, says Matt, were largely unprepared for this crisis.
  3. Level two is where most of us landed during lockdown. Doing what you did in the office , just remotely. Matt likens this level of maturity to the situation in the early 1920’s when radio drama started. Performers would literally recreate plays – but just on the radio. There was no taking advantage of the new technology or innovating the medium. Importantly Matt points out that this can be less productive than level one as we explore and get distracted. His advice – push on – nirvana lies aheads
  4. At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. People invest in better equipment. It’s where teams start to collaborate on shared documents or build business cases during the meeting.
  5. Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work.
  6. And level five, Nirvana This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organisation could. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to work every day.

The most important lesson I take from Matt is that there will be a pain barrier to push through at Level 2.

As someone who took a extended break from work at the beginnings of COVID I returned to find people saying they were overwhelmed, in continual back to back meetings , and working 12 hours days. That this has become acceptable in such a short period of time is a form of madness , and is wholly unsustainable if we are to push forward and mature our approach to distributed work.

In fact the terminology of remote work is itself unhelpful almost framing the solution as either office or home based. As Stowe Boyd suggests perhaps we need to turn the thinking and terminology around and drop both the ‘hybrid’ and ‘remote’ terms. As he says, let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, rather than zero office and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

We do need to avoid simplistically calling for the death of the office (although let’s be clear – it’s dying). Equally we need to resist the corollary of “get back to the office”. What about the city centres? What about the shops and spaces that have supported us the past few months? It would be remiss of us to exclude our local communities from this conversation.

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

That – and that alone – should form the basis of a discussion of where the work is actually done.

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