Is an office really necessary?
We have proven that productivity is not significantly impacted by working virtually. In many ways, if you’re able to work uninterrupted and remove commute times whilst being able to get jobs done at home, fulfil caring responsibilities, receive deliveries and attend personal appointments (to name a few) then the impact on productivity may well be positive. However, whilst some employees are comfortable and productive working from home, others prefer the structure that a place of work provides. Whichever way you look at it, balancing work and home is a significant and personal challenge for most working adults and the key for business is flexibility and understanding.
Social connection and identity
Offices can be a place to escape/a change of scenery if there is not the opportunity to focus at home or if the routine at home has become claustrophobic. If we remove the communal workspace completely, we impact the way in which we see or identify ourselves to others as well as the identity of the group. We each choose to define our identity in different ways but many of us have become accustomed to our place of work and the social interaction we have there being a key feature of who we are. Without a shared place to work, we will undoubtedly see an erosion of social identity, loss of social engagement and disconnect that impacts team performance. We may also be negatively impacting professional identity at an individual level and having an adverse impact on personal performance for some colleagues too.
When working virtually, even with technology working at its best, we lose the natural flow of an in-person discussion, miss opportunities to contribute at the right time or, in many cases, are given ‘airtime’ to contribute when we’re least prepared or have little to add. The structured and rigid format of video conferences – even with the introduction of side tables and breakout rooms – hasn’t replicated the social fluidity of in-person conversation and this can have a detrimental impact on genuine, productive, collaborative engagement.
That is the best case. We still don’t have reliable technology solutions that ensure we can connect and engage in virtual meetings with confidence. The challenge is not just about how effective we can run virtual discussions but whether they can happen uninterrupted at all. And when technology is not working, it is even more frustrating sitting at home with no one to complain to! The full benefit of collaboration is lost if it is purely mechanical.
There is an additional dimension to this challenge which is more fundamental to how we engage with each other on matters of heightened complexity or sensitivity. Have you ever put off a conversation ‘until we meet in person’? It is perfectly normal human behaviour to wait until you are in the same room as someone to have a difficult conversation. If you feel the need to explain complex information in detail, develop creative ideas in collaboration or tackle a personally sensitive topic with someone, it’s likely that you might schedule that for a time when you can be in the same room.
That approach serves two clear objectives: respect for the person or people you are interacting with and making use of non-verbal, instinctive reactions to new information. Making time to focus on a topic in person sets a tone for tackling difficult conversations and being able to navigate those topics with all social and emotional cues available is critical for that being effective. In a virtual world, these difficult topics get readily postponed or mishandled with detrimental effects.
If a company can financially maintain a workspace but allow employees flexibility in how and when they use it, that would enable employees to achieve balance within their own circumstances. The office requirement is heavily reliant on the specific business context and employees personal and work needs, so regardless of what appears to be the best approach, involving employees in the decision process is critical for successfully managing this transition.
Blackmore Four are a management consulting company, offering specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisation development needs of your business. We work with ambitious business leaders to achieve outstanding levels of performance through periods of growth or significant change.