As we emerge from the pandemic, in most countries office work is resuming at scale, meaning doing hybrid work well is a priority for every organization. This topic currently makes up a considerable portion of my client work.
Many workers and executives have learned to appreciate the many positives of remote work, yet for many reasons very few companies will dispense with offices, since they can play a valuable role in highly productive organizations.
Last month I distilled thoughts on factors for success in the new era of hybrid work, but we need to delve deeper into the issues for effective organizational design.
Recently working with one of my clients on designing effective hybrid work structures, I defined five high-value roles that offices can play for companies and their staff.
Understanding these is a necessary foundation for selecting where different kinds of work should happen. However recognizing these roles also allows us to identify other ways to fulfil these vital organizational functions.
Humans are deeply social animals. We need to interact regularly with people. Being in an office can provide company, connection, and conversation, and paves the way to spending time with others at lunch or over work. For many people it is their primary place for social interaction. Yet there are of course other places we can find human connection, for example in friendly coworking spaces, or encouraging work teams to organize face-to-face catchups that don’t necessarily need to be in an office or work environment.
Getting out of the house
Some people have a pleasant home environment including a comfortable work setup that surpasses their office arrangement. They are very happy to work from home, avoid commuting, and exercise more easily, finding they are significantly more productive. Others live in cramped or poorly lit apartments where they have to work at their kitchen table, or find that excessive time spent with their spouse or children leads to conflict. Many of these are keen to get back to the office, though again coworking spaces or other approaches can meet the same need.
An unfortunate number of people have been for the last 18 months spending much of their working hours on video calls. They have plenty of interaction with other people, but all in structured online sessions that have a defined intent. Time might be allocated for personal sharing or chit-chat, however that is just a slot on the agenda. When you are working with others in an office, there are plenty of opportunities for informal interaction with no specific intent, just chatting. These times are where organizational culture is largely formed and expressed. Staff learn more about the context of what’s happening in the company, beyond what anyone has identified as something they need to know. This provides a broader understanding, and thus is often where valuable ideas are generated. Informal conversations can happen over video calls, but they require intent and recognition of their importance.
I have worked extensively in exploring the role of organizational networks in high-performance organizations, a well-recognized success factor. Simply put, a better-networked firm will outperform its peers, with over recent years this factor becoming even more important. Since diverse networks create more value, these need to be formed not just by company structure and team design, but by fortuitous connections that drive innovation and unpredictable value creation. The office designs of Pixar and Apple’s ‘spaceship’, for example, were specifically shaped to enable these kinds of connections. Given the shift to remote work, a whole new sector of enterprise software designed to support serendipitous interactions has arisen, with some companies finding them highly useful. Arguably well-designed online systems have the potential to do better than the pure accidents of colocation.
A primary role of offices which means they will never disappear is the critical role of trust building. Arguably the main reason organizations will still exist indefinitely as they compete with distributed ventures in the economy of individuals is the degree of trust you build from extended working and socializing with colleagues. Trust massively reduces the ‘transaction costs’ of effective collaboration, making group projects and innovation far easier. This is perhaps the primary reason why virtually every large completely virtual company organizes regular in-person meetings, with for example Automattic, which has well over 1,000 distributed staff members, running quarterly meetings convening all hands.
Many suggest that innovation-oriented collaboration is best suited to an office environment. While I don’t necessarily disagree, the significant success of many virtual organizations confirm remote collaboration can result in high levels of innovation, and I believe the five factors above are the underlying issues that enable creative ideation.
Being clear on the specific value of offices – or more specifically colocated work – enables the design of optimal hybrid work, encompassing not just home and office but also third spaces. Let’s go beyond the obvious to find new ways to configure our work for wellbeing and wonderful outcomes.