Until the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, the office as the center of work appeared to have won the day. Organizations that had moved toward a remote workforce in the 1990s (think Yahoo! and IBM) were starting to claw back their employees, making many of them return to work in physical offices.
As further evidence of the reign of the physical office, the world’s most dominant and valuable tech companies have been building campuses that not only encourage workers to spend their working hours together, but increasingly their personal hours as well. Google, Apple and Facebook have provided WIFI-enabled bus service from San Francisco to ferry employees to their Silicon Valley campuses. Goodbye solitary morning commute. While on campus, other bennies might include meals in the company cafeteria, free snacks and drinks throughout the day, massages, gaming stations, ping-pong and foosball, even dry cleaning. The personal errands and diversions that once constituted mental or physical breaks have now been woven into the office workday.
The underlying theory is compelling: with employees working in a single location, culture-building is easier, and collaboration is both far more likely and more effective. Leaders of these organizations believe informal collisions between employees will spark casual conversations, which will lead to cross-functional collaboration and, ultimately, new heights of organizational creativity and productivity. The “open office” concept – no walls, desks on wheels, open collaboration spaces – grew in parallel. While it is impossible to draw a straight line from organizational theory to these benefits, it is also difficult to argue with the booming success of the Silicon Valley giants who champion them.
But the pandemic changed all of that. As the lights winked out in offices across the country, the default mode of work changed almost overnight: everyone who could work from home was asked to do so. In-person meetings became video conference gatherings (I struggle to find the right word for this; calling them calls or meetings seems inaccurate). Casual lunches with friends and colleagues have become Hollywood Squares-like virtual happy hours.
This new way of connecting is re-igniting a debate about the future of work. Some organizations are scrambling to get their employees to return to physical offices. I wonder if the push to get back to the office, the “return to normalcy” that everyone seems to be talking about, is a desire to go back in time to the “good old days” before the pandemic blindsided us. If we can just get back to the office, the thinking goes, we can put the genie back in the bottle, and the world can return to how it was before, just with masks and 6 feet of physical distance.
Other organizations are proclaiming that their employees may never return to the office. This new workforce will be digital nomads, free to roam the earth as long as they have laptops, smart phones, and reliable WIFI access. Some are predicting the death of the open office, and even the death of cities, as fearful knowledge-worker-citizens flee to suburban neighborhoods, rural retreats, or smaller metropolitan areas to escape urban hot-spots and the casual collisions that drive higher infection rates.
I suspect most organizations will end up charting a hybrid path, one that is more flexible and responsive to the needs of customers and employees. Like most organizations, Inkinen Executive Search responded to the pandemic by having all employees work from home. Before all of this, I believed that working from the office was vastly superior to remote work. I believed that in-person meetings with clients and candidates were indispensable. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so much of our work can be done as effectively via video conference as it can in person. As a result, I haven’t encouraged our people to return to the office.
Our current plan (subject to almost constant revision, as most plans should be), involves creating a distributed office that can accommodate both in-person and remote work. Some of our team members will continue to work from home in the interest of personal safety. Some will choose to work from home through the summer until their children return to school in the fall. Some will choose to split time between the office and their homes. At least one can’t wait until the office reopens so she can get back to her desk. I trust them to make choices that are right for their individual mix of productivity, safety, and desire for physical proximity. I’m confident this will work, because we all want the same thing: to do great work for our clients while taking care of ourselves and our community. I think we can have it all.