The pandemic exposed the innate vulnerabilities of working at an office space. But you could argue that it wasn’t the pandemic that really killed the idea of people working together in a confined space – that instead, the pandemic merely accelerated the demise of office work. After all, things were brought to either an accelerated halt or some form of rushed destruction last year – the demise of oil, indoor dining, tuxedos – you name it.
And the apparent death of the office was a death foretold by people who managed to get their work done from coffee shops and shared work spaces. Cafes with high-speed internet, decent furniture and good lighting became the new office for not just freelancers and startup launchers – but by full-time employees as well. Because companies allowed flexibility in work schedule – a logical byproduct of employees with differing time zones working together because of globalization – employees could work from anywhere.
And you can’t blame companies for allowing their employees this much flexibility. If they could save on electricity costs and not to mention a fraction of the internet bandwidth usage, then why not? A culture allowing for so much flexibility often means that top leadership is in favor of working flexibly. If executives could afford themselves a flexible work setup, then why not let such a culture trickle down the ranks?
Flexible work conditions – the choice of working at the company’s designated office space or working from a personally preferred location – in some way prepared companies for the forced transition into the working from home. But I simply don’t agree with the notion that companies will forever abandon the idea of working at an office. Somehow the pandemic has exposed our need for human connection and collaboration. Videoconferencing platforms expose attributes physical meetings have which just can’t be replicated. And so here are a few reasons why I think working from the office may not be dead or may never even die.
Meeting Customers or Clients in the Flesh
Whenever I think of meeting customers or clients, the image that pops into my head is Michael Scott, the protagonist boss from the sitcom The Office and that one episode where he and his boss take a prospective customer out to a work lunch. And I’ll always remember that episode as being the first time I see in Michael Scott (who is awfully infamous for being an incompetent manager) someone who knows how to bag a client.
Story short, Michael Scott knew that the way to win a client over and make him give his business to you was to make him trust you. Trust was the key. And it was impressive how Michael Scott didn’t even utter a single word about their business agenda up until the work lunch was over, and they had built so much rapport during that lunch that they were standing by the bar drinking cocktails.
Now I don’t know anything about sales, but I do know that people trust the person who’s in front of them more than they trust a voice coming from a computer screen. This is an unfair generalization and of course contracts are still renewed, or new ones signed over video calls – but our basic human tendencies won’t really change. We will continue to seek to meet our business partners in the flesh. The physical cues, the way people talk, a person’s attitude – these are things we want manifested right in front of us and in the same room as us.
Convenience of Supervision
Managing people in the same room, especially when you’re all working on the same operation, is a lot more efficient when done right in front of you. Imagine not being able to know the status of a worker whose virtual work location is on another island and there’s an unexpected power outage in that island. And what if this happens to more of your workers, who are dispersed all over different work locations?
It might vary depending on the type of business operation you have, but there are many instances where it’s just more convenient to manage people because they are right in front of you.
Video Call Fatigue
If there’s one thing we want less of for our workday, it’s video calls or online meetings. We might think that the ease of clicking on a meeting link and joining our teammates on a video conference saves so much time – running up an elevator becomes unnecessary and picking an unclaimed seat no longer a problem – but video calls have a way of eating up all of our time.
Because we become confined to communicating online and through other non-physical means permitted by technology, there arises a compensatory effect in communication. A need to over-communicate with our teammates arises. And before you know it, your calendar becomes booked with a host of online meetings that the time you allocate to do actual work becomes depleted.
We take for granted how physical face-to-face communication is very efficient. We realize that there are tasks for which video calls aren’t necessary. What would take a 30-minute block on your meeting calendar could have easily been replaced with a 10-minute huddle. And no time wasted in creating meeting invites and chatting or emailing someone if they’re available – you can just head over their desk and ask them so.
Building a Team by Not Doing Work
And we also take for granted the value of doing things together as a team that are not related to work. These things outside of work – having lunch together, buying coffee, watching a non-work-related YouTube video – are things that let us know each one’s character without deliberately assigning a work task around it.
Companies focus so much on designing team building events and seminars that sometimes they fail to realize that all the team building they need is right there in the office – it’s there when there’s half an hour left on a Friday and everyone’s just running out the clock, and it’s also there by the water cooler when two or three of you linger because of gossip.
The reasons I’ve identified above don’t make the case for a revival of work-from-office any stronger. But they do remind us of what the old normal was and that we may end up wanting to revert back to that, even to a limited extent. As COVID-19 vaccines get rolled out worldwide, in some countries slower than others, we will see some inevitable return to the office. But to what extent? And will we ever be back to the old ways? Or will we feel the need to drive ourselves out of the confined spaces and find ourselves working from coffee shops or from our homes?