There is a lot of discussion about the future of offices. Companies like Shopify and Twitter have announced that they will allow remote work forever, while others, like Google and Apple, have committed to offices in the future. These announcements and decisions are interesting to me on a couple of fronts. First, you have the business side of it and the collaboration that an office brings. The second is a societal side.
What I am about to say will sound like me telling a story about walking uphill, to and from school in a snowstorm. You may think I am just a crusty old person set in his ways, but I’m not. I am very progressive with technology, and I will concede that I can be wrong, just not on this one.
Let’s also do this all wrong and tell the punchline first. I believe that offices play a vital role in the development of a company, and distributed workforces are at a disadvantage. Sure, there are fully distributed companies out there, they do exist. Some are successful and others are not, I’m sure workforce distribution isn’t the only factor in their success or failure. The argument that is usually made for distributed workforces is that you have access to a far larger talent pool: the world. That is most definitely true, no argument there. But for all the benefits of distributed working, you lose me at collaboration.
Here at Searchspring, we are pretty ahead of the curve with our use of Asana, Miro, G Suite, and Google Meet for remote collaboration. I still see the lost human factor and know that we are letting down a large percentage of our workforce right now, as it takes a certain individual to be able to work remotely all the time. A lot of people are just not cut out for remote working, they either don’t have a private place at home or they need human interaction. Those who have heads-down, task-based roles do have an easier time, and in the past, I did work from home two days a week to keep my head down and not be distracted. But doing that full time just isn’t the same.
Offices allow for creativity. They encourage it, as humans are basically forced to talk and discuss. The best design sessions are with multiple people sitting in a room throwing out ideas and whiteboarding. We try this virtually with Miro but it just feels hollow to me. Interrupting each other while on a video is hard, and then you have the issue of people not paying attention and getting distracted by their laptop and notifications. It’s too easy to get interrupted, you are staring at your computer and a notification goes off, you are immediately distracted.
The office is a place where you learn from your co-workers, where new employees can literally sit with someone to learn. There is no way you can mimic that virtually. There are just so many conversations that start when someone overhears another employee, and ad hoc meetings that just happen. This is just too hard to replicate virtually. No matter how hard you try, a one-on-one conversation will not turn into an ad hoc meeting with more people. Lastly, offices are great at time-boxing your day. Working from home blends work and life in an unhealthy way for a lot of people and it’s far easier to disconnect when you have to leave the office.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people who can be very productive working remotely on their own, but generally speaking they are the select, not the norm. Typically, it is task-based work, which is why developers can be super productive when heads-down programming. But that doesn’t mean that all programmers are more productive. You still have the problem of the environment and whether your setup is conducive to working from home. What this pandemic has taught me is that even the best setup is still no match for the office, where there aren’t screaming kids, doorbells, etc.
Aside from the gains in collaboration, we also have the loss of human interaction and what that means. The ability to react by watching someone’s body language is lost. Having a very difficult conversation about someone’s future at the company over a video and not in person is just horrible. Maybe it is a shift in society, after all, we are getting pretty lazy when you consider all the convenience apps, Uber, Uber Eats, Tinder, etc. We are moving toward less human interaction and everything on demand. Although Tinder is not a dating app, it is a matching app – at some point you still have to meet. Unless virtual marriages turn into a thing.
The biggest loss in my eyes is the intangible things that an office brings. When I look back to graduating from college and getting my first job, the office was the place I made my first adult friends. The office dynamics allow for many relationships to happen. Maybe I feel like it is my job to foster that further and not let that aspect go, however weird that may sound.
I gave you the punchline at the start but suffice to say I am not going fully distributed when offices are allowed to open. Will we get back to where we were? I doubt it. Will the offices be full any time soon? No. I suspect things will look more “normal” in 2021, even if that means the rebirth of cubicles. Honestly, we already have a decent amount of distributed employees and have a flexible work-from-home policy that allows for a wide variety and a good mix. We don’t employ a one-size-fits-all approach and instead try to be flexible, to hire great people but also to build a great culture across our five offices. We will likely increase our variety but not at a wholesale change to no offices. I see no reason to abandon the office and the collaboration or lose the water cooler talk. It’s just impossible to recreate those virtually.