It’s almost like the workers of the world have unionized. Pre-pandemic, employers could demand physical presence in an office because many other companies made the same demands. It took a global pandemic to change the calculus of in-person work.
Now that workers have a taste of freedom, returning to offices is a hard sell, especially since many employees have experienced remote work success. For many smart companies, remote work is here to stay.
The workplace was first created because there was no other way for humans to collaborate without being face-to-face. The need to earn a livelihood shaped society — from where people lived to how they transported themselves to and fro to how children were raised.
The first documented communal workspace dates back to a 15th-century scriptorium desk where monks congregated to copy manuscripts. Although there’s no physical record, the workplace has likely existed from the beginning of human business collaboration. Malevolent office politics and catty gossip around the water cistern probably surfaced simultaneously
The myths of colocated work
The 21st century ushered in technology to fully support remote work. Still, many employers are reluctant to loosen the colocation reins for various reasons, most of which are invalid.
Myth 1: Physical presence results in better work outcomes
Presence in an office is an invitation for all-day interruptions. Even for those fortunate enough to avoid the cacophony of an open office, anyone anytime may come a-knocking on the cubicle wall. Interruptions break workers’ flow states, making it difficult to concentrate for sustained periods in an office.
Agile aficionados have long insisted that, for the methodology to work, Scrum teams must sit shoulder-to-shoulder so any stray thought is expeditiously communicated to teammates. Not only did Scrum teams endure terrible working conditions, but they also had to sit so close they’d smell their neighbor’s lunchtime-acquired onion breath.
Some companies use office togetherness to hold meetings that would otherwise occur remotely. Granted, face-to-face communications are the highest quality, allowing the participants to absorb body language and subtle facial expressions. However, most business meetings don’t require high-fidelity emotional intelligence. Adults learn to use words to express thoughts and an activated camera adequately captures facial expressions.
Myth 2: Serendipity occurs regularly in the office
Old school managers regularly toss out this tired trope: Remote work precludes the chance encounter of employees in the break room, who wouldn’t otherwise interact, which results in earthshaking new ideas.
For every break room epiphany, there are one-thousand time-wasting, “How was your weekend?” exchanges. Not to denigrate the value of esprit de corps, but idle water cooler chitchat is mostly pointless and doesn’t strengthen relationships.
Myth 3: Employees slack off when they’re not under management’s thumb
Elon Musk said it worst. In a leaked memo, he stated, “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.”
When a Twitter follower requested “additional comment to people who think coming into work is an antiquated concept,” Musk responded, “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”
Anti-Musk managers see the value of giving employees flexibility and eliminating their commutes. Remote employees with greater control of their lives are happier, more productive, and more loyal.
Losers of the No-Office Future
1. Sunk Costers & Data Siloers
Unbelievably, the frugal Apple CEO Tim Cook gave the profligate Jony Ive the green light to build a $5 billion new headquarters. Cook is now twisting arms to force reluctant Cupertino employees back into the 2.8 million-square-foot, all-glass office.
Ironically, the openness of the Apple headquarters space, where Ive expected employees to collaborate organically, contradicts the paranoid secrecy of the Apple culture where information silos are the norm and card-restricted areas are common.
Culture, not architecture, prevents corporate data silos.
2. Companies demanding colocation of pandemic-hired employees
Unless a company hired locally during the pandemic, new employees will either have to move or quit if colocation becomes a requirement. The significant expense of attracting, training, and keeping employees acquired during the pandemic is obliterated if these workers quit.
3. When valued employees moved during the pandemic
Many, many local employees moved during the pandemic since they were no longer bound by office geography. These workers can now easily find remote jobs and will abandon ship if management requires a return to the office.
Winners of the No-Office Future
1. Companies that got smart about meetings and communications
One of the big surprises for many managers is the value of asynchronous communications. Most questions, issues, or problems don’t demand an immediate response. Workers are free to focus and get into a flow state if they aren’t expected to engage every time they receive a Slack message.
Smart managers who recognize an out-of-control meeting culture and make changes are set for a remote work future. Eliminating unnecessary meetings, time-boxing, and reducing participants are solid strategies.
2. Companies that value occasional togetherness
Remote work has downsides. Humans are social animals with an innate need to make deep connections. Occasional in-person get-togethers help build cohesive teams. The chance to break bread together is invaluable and the most important aspect of team gatherings. Gatherings may occur anywhere, preferably in fun, walkable locations — no office is required.
3. Companies that go all-in on remote culture
Companies committed to successful remote work help their employees create kick-ass home office setups with wicked-fast internet speeds. Meetings are kept to a minimum, leaving workers time to focus and create. These companies trust their employees to find a rhythm that blends family and professional time in the best manner for each person.