woman sitting on the floor working on a laptop in her lounge room

We can work from home, so what’s the office for?

Recently, we have been asking how do we make work more flexible. Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated shifts to working from home and remote work settings. So, we are starting to rethink where work can be done. We’re also questioning, what is the office for, and can we do it differently?

Women’s networks have, for decades, advocated more flexibility in work to allow people to manage a more  work-life. Newer generations of workers, in particular, demand more flexibility to allow for a lifestyle that does not marry up with a 9 to 5 day in the office. Flexibility at work is not only an issue for women with babies. It’s also an issue for families; people who care for elderly parents; people with pets at home who miss them; and many other segments of our community who want to lead a more balanced life. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved we can do focused work outside of the office, and we can do it asynchronously. En masse we have experienced a greater level of control over when and how the work gets done . We have proven that we can maintain and even increase our productivity. This is due to the fact that most people find that sense of autonomy motivating. In fact, it’s one of the three main motivational drivers along with mastery and a sense of belonging (see Dan Pink’s Drive).

So what is the office for?

As businesses ready themselves for the shifts required as restrictions ease in most states in Australia, the question turns to what is the office for? Companies are reframing their expectations of where work gets done. Many are opting for models that include some kind of hybrid model with allocations of time in the office and remote (which could be working from home or in co-working spaces close to an employee’s home).

Answering the question “what is the office for” requires some thinking by business owners of the kind of ideal culture they want to create. It should never start with what kind of office fit they should order. The built environment reinforces behaviours and mindsets, even though we’re not aware of its influence. You can feel this when you walk into a room that is set up with shared tables and bright colours versus one that has grey office dividers and single desks. The first room provokes collaboration, dialogue, laughter, and creativity. The second room engenders focussed work and contemplation, and even signs of a less modern culture. Your business may require both of these settings for different kinds of activity at work. Office fits outs can be transformed to create different zones to encourage these diverse activities. Co-working spaces have known this for some time, constructed with deliberate activity zones in minds, equipped with social collaboration spaces, and private phone booths and nooks to get away from it all.

The key to determining what office fit out is best for your company is to determine what kind of social interactions are important for your work culture. Social network analysis will provide these answers, and in fact has been used by social sciences for decades to measure culture.

In fact I used social network analysis in my PhD 20 years ago. Back then, I had to do it by hand because we didn’t have the technology at our fingertips like we do today. Today there are great apps and computer programs that can analyse large streams of data, such as for example, email traffic between people. They can analyse perceptions of people’s relationships and plot them on vectors, giving us indices that show the degree to which a person is connected in their social network. Software like Sociomapping.com then plots that data on a geographic landscape, in a 3D visual representation of peaks and valleys, and allowing for digestable feedback for managers and teams.

Understanding the extent of weak ties is important because the research shows that building networks of casual acquaintances can boost happiness, knowledge, and a sense of belonging. This means that office spaces and their surroundings allow for and encourage those weak ties. Weak ties form between people who might see each other frequently, wave and say hello, but who do not consider each other friends. Whilst there is an enormous benefit to individuals in strong ties (people who you often talk to and feel close to), it is these weak ties that create a culture of care, sense of belonging, creativity, and excitement in and around the work setting.

During my PhD research I asked people, “Who’s work do you rely on to get your work done”; “Who relies on you to do a good job”; “Who do you go to, to get things done here?; and “ Who do you consider a friend?”. I asked people these kinds of questions to get a sense of their social interactions in the office. Right now, we are going back to some of those questions as we redefine what we mean by ways of working.

I believe this is a true paradigm shift. There are four activities we have believed are best conducted in a traditional office environment. The first is that it’s a place to focus and do productive work. The second one is that it’s a place where we learn and where we increase our competency and capability. The third is collaborating with our colleagues, and with our clients, and suppliers and others. And the fourth last but not least reason, is that the office is a place for socialising with our colleagues, extended network of clients, suppliers, peers, mentors. Cultural meaning is transferred through those social interactions. It’s where we have a chance to experience the social aspects of work.

What we’ve realised, through the recent global experiment, is that we can do focused work at home or working remotely. Despite commonly held beliefs about the conditions required for productivity, this has not dropped over the period that the workforce has been working from home. What we’ve found however is a detriment for the individual themselves, as the boundaries between work and home are blurred. Workers need to support to reset boundaries via daily rituals that help them effectively switch from work to leisure in the absence of physically leaving the office.

Equally, learning is another aspect that we’ve learned can be done well remotely, albeit many workers have experienced challenges with peer to peer learning opportunities and mentoring in a virtual environment . This is an area where we will see more innovation, including the use of AI and Virtual Reality, with 5G enabling this shift.

Now I want to discuss the third reason we might want to go into an office for, and that’s collaboration. The pandemic has accelerated the ways in which we now do this virtually and online. There has been a lot of innovation in this area with companies learning quickly about how to do collaboration better. There are so many great apps that help us collaborate, and do it in an asynchronous way, as well, so that we can collaborate right around the globe. Geography and time zones are no longer barriers to collaboration.

Social aspects of work

Of all of the four reasons for using the office, it’s the social aspect that we are missing the most as we work remotely during lockdown . And the pandemic has heightened the social aspects of work more than ever, particularly as a vehicle to a unified culture in organisations. It’s important to maintain that sense of belonging and loyalty to our teams and our organisational identity. What we miss are those ‘surprise’ moments, when you’re in the office and you bump into someone. You smile and you say hello, and begin a conversation you hadn’t expected to have. It can lead anywhere to: creative solutions and innovation, and finding synergies, insights, and connections that you may not have reached on your own. It’s more than collaboration. It’s also about having people become in sync with each other, and what that does is create bonds between people to a unified identity.

Relationship research has shown us that successful marriages are those where people are more likely to discuss the minutia of their day; i.e. what they had for breakfast and how the commute to work was for them. This information helps couples get in sync. The same concept is true of us at work. That small talk with our work colleagues helps us get into sync with them and form weak ties that impact our sense of belonging, engagement, and general happiness. In an experimental study that tested the power of our daily social interactions, research found that even weak social ties were enough to increase wellbeing and happiness . Social interactions help us to feel we belong to a community and make us aware of priorities and goals outside of our own. It helps us gain perspective in our own lives, and builds resilience, especially during tough times.

So how do we replicate the social aspects of work if our workforce is remote? How do we replicate those casual conversations, the serendipitous encounters, the drinks after work, and spurious connections? Much will be revealed about our workspaces in the near future that solves this problem: from creating activity zones and break-out spaces in offices for social rather than focussed work; to online tools that help us ‘bump’ into each our colleagues throughout the day. Watch this space!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: