According to researchers, the current pandemic surge has likely peaked in the US. They certainly could be wrong or we could see a new surge based on some weird variant out of South Africa or West Hartford, but with vaccines starting to get distributed, it's a good bet that the pandemic has likely peaked and one I am comfortable getting behind. It's a nice thought to have and I thought this rush of optimism would be a good time to examine some of the behaviors and trends that emerged during the pandemic as well as some that may develop once it is over. Today, I want to look at offices.
Much has been written about how the pandemic has changed the office forever. Some have even said that the future of work is remote teams and virtual offices. Having just started a new company that is completely remote, it's plausible to envision such a future, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
Saying that offices are dead is like saying restaurants are dead because of Doordash or bars are dead because of Zoom Happy Hours with friends. Offices have a purpose and if anything the pandemic has served to further entrenched their value - and perhaps what they are not.
In my opinion offices serve two main purposes that can't be replicated virtually at the moment:
Offices are a place to meet
While meetings without purpose are a scourge purposeful meetings are more effective in a real world environment. The pandemic has shown that some meetings are fine to do virtually but others just don't work.
We recently had to map out and story board a new product with a virtual team. What usually could happen in a room with a whiteboard in 2 days ended up taking over a week and was not nearly as effective as I know it could have been.
Offices are a place to show up to
I am not a big believer in the importance of face time, but I am a big believer in "showing up". While it's certainly possible to show up virtually and many people can do it quite well it does not necessarily work for all types of people or roles. I've also found that those who show up virtually also show up in person, or vice versa.
Showing up is important not only because it demonstrates a base level of discipline and willingness to be a team member but it helps signal to other team members and managers when something may be wrong.
I define "showing up" as being present and available for some regular, core hours of work. Changes in "showing up" don't always signal problems but often times they do. It is a fantastic signal on how an organization is running. Some may interpret this to mean "managers want to bring people back to the office to make sure they are working". For some this is definitely the case. For good managers, it's to make sure the company is healthy. It's to make sure you, the manager, are working well and effectively.
Virtual workplaces distort the signal of showing up. In many ways it's easier to show up, but it doesn't mean the same thing. Anyone can roll out of bed and pop onto Slack or send an email. That isn't showing up. In other ways it's harder to truly "show up" because the freedom and distractions that present themselves at home. Likewise, it's harder to "leave" the office since you are always at the office. Leaving is an important signal that comes out of showing up. It can gauge everything from engagement to burn out to problems affecting people you care about outside of the office.
Anecdotally, many people I know are starting to burn out working from home, because they are finding it harder to leave. This is not a good thing. Most of these people also increasingly are frustrated that some employees or coworkers are being "underutilized" and are increasingly becoming invisible. This is more likely to happen at larger organizations where it's easier to disappear. This is not good either and likely related. Both are failures of management and I would say this failure stems from the lack of signal that they're used to or that the processes that they set up provides to others on the team or in the org.
The future is more flexible and decentralized
Offices are not necessarily the only place to meet and virtual companies can put in processes and systems in order to replicate the signal produced by showing up (or eliminate the need for it completely). They do solve both problems fairly well, and that's why I don't think they are going anywhere any time soon.
Instead, I think we will begin to see offices being used for more "core hours" and meetings and collaboration. Working from home no longer has the same stigma that it used to and I expect to see flexibility become more commonplace once we return to offices. Leaving at 2pm to pick up your kids, have an easier commute, or go to the gym is something that I expect to be more accepted and commonplace in more offices post pandemic. I also see certain roles have much different core hours and in person collaboration needs than other roles. A team of engineers may only need to come to the office once a week, but a sales team or creative team may need more time in the office. I believe fit will be something that organizations optimize towards and it will no longer be as "one-size-fits-all".
Likewise, I think this mentality will eventually lead to less headquarters and more "clubs". I think the biggest companies will have many smaller offices in more cities and areas than big headquarters in a few, they will also support fully remote teams. One of the major benefits of remote companies is the ability to hire talent without geographical constraints. This is a trend that is beginning to occur but I think will continue. It is not without it's own operational burdens and costs, but with those come great benefits.
To use a physics metaphor, I believe the future of offices is more spread out across space and time.