Does the Office Have a Future?
As the world has emerged from the once-in-a-century experience of a global pandemic, we find that a new social contract is being created between office employees and employers. Most organizations have settled into an agreement that hybrid work balances management’s desire to see their subordinates with workers’ desires to reduce the time spent in mind-numbing commuting.
Still, there are unsettled questions about:
- How many days should employees come into the office?
- Should the company dictate which days are in-office days?
- Should employees be free to become remote workers, living in different states or even different countries if they wish?
- How do you keep the new office with dramatically reduced density from feeling like a ghost town?
- How do you maintain that “creative energy” that comes from high levels of human interaction?
These issues will probably not get settled quickly or neatly, but while the office world is sorting things out it is worth taking a step back and considering the ways that the office was never the work nirvana that some say it was.
Let's look at life before the pandemic—
- Constant, ongoing interruptions were the order of the day. Except for those executives lucky enough to have private offices, doing work that required focus was a struggle. It wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, I am going home because I need to get some work done. The trend toward the new open plan of side-by-side workers facing each other across benches made it worse. Ironically this trend was led by technology companies whose employees had high needs for focus.
- In most cities, that daily commute was soul-draining. In an era of two-career families, juggling work and family activities produced major stress. And of course, it was no favor to the environment to pump hydrocarbons into the air for one to two hours a day, five days a week.
- And finally, what is company culture anyway? Can anybody define what constitutes good culture and does anyone know how to create it?
But, before we put our office space up for sublease and send everybody to work from home,
Let’s consider where office space has or can serve an essential role:
Company Culture. There is actually some decent research on this that offers insight into what company culture is and how to nurture it. Professor Bradford Bell at Cornell University has studied the issue and describes company culture as the unwritten norms for behavior.
According to Bell, “Company culture is really about the connection that employees have, number one, to a company. Culture is important for signaling what companies value.“
Does the company value new independent thinking or is more importance placed on tradition? Is it okay to bend or break rules to achieve a beneficial outcome or is it critical to respect policies and procedures? Either might be valid depending on the industry, but stress and strife occur where there is misunderstanding within an organization.