In last week’s weeknote, I asked a question:
“Much is made of “watercooler moments” as a reason to return to the office (RTO). Well, is there any reason that such moments can’t happen outside the office too?”
I wrote about “coffees” (as a metaphor for meeting up with no agenda), but only this afternoon I witnessed a “watercooler moment” away from the office. Two of my colleagues were on a Teams call, and they discovered that they live only a few streets away from one another. Actually, as the call went on, I realised that 80% of the attendees were in/around the same city (I was the exception).
But what also became apparent to me is how these four people in the same city had different needs – and that travelling to a city centre location was almost easier for me (80 miles away) than it was for some of them!
This is where the subject of this blog post shifts to hybrid work. And it seems that the thing to remember about hybrid work is that what works for one does not necessarily work for another.
On the one hand, we want to nurture a culture, and to get people working as a team. One way to do that is to co-locate them. But we have distributed teams too. Regionally, nationally or globally. There’s limited value in going to the office if you won’t actually be in the same place as your colleagues. Conversely, there’s an view that you might meet people from a broader cross-section of the company. That holds some merit.
I planned to be in an office tomorrow, then my diary filled up and it looks like I will spend half the day on the same Teams calls I would have attended from home. Is that a good reason to be in the office?
There’s also the view of productivity. Being present in an office isn’t the same as doing good work. Some find it easy to work at home. Others struggle to get motivated. Some find it easier to work in an office. Some struggle with the noise and disruption. Some people have better IT at home (e.g. a faster connection to the Internet).
Some people will say “you used to come to the office before Covid”. But did we? Working patterns have been changing for a while. Even before the pandemic, I was at home or on client sites most of the time. I was rarely at a company location.
And there seems to be an assumption by some that employees took remote or hybrid jobs as if it was some kind of favour, and can now absorb the time and costs associated with commuting. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005. If I travel to an office, it costs the company money, not me. That may work for a professional services business charging me out on a fee-earning basis, plus expenses. But less so when it’s “everyone into the office x days a week”.
I do feel for those who are starting out or early in their careers. It must be tricky when you don’t see the people you work with. I learned by observing others, and by being shown what to do. We need to find new ways to do that and to nurture people’s growth.
But, for those with caring responsibilities, the flexibility of working from home means they can continue delivering value to the organisation whilst fulfilling the needs of those they care for. As a society, we’re living longer. Those of us in our middle age are sandwiched between the needs of our children and those of our aging parents. And that’s not considering the changes in our ability to work that come with this time of life, for example adapting to deal with the menopause (that’s a whole blog post in itself).
We don’t want to lose good skills to when we really just need to accommodate different people’s needs.
And then there’s the green angle. “How can we be more environmentally-sensitive?”, asks the person responsible for the organisation’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. Perhaps, by travelling less?
It’s about autonomy
I’ll be the first to admit that 100% remote work doesn’t work for me. And I get a lot from being with others to collaborate on something. Earlier this month I did travel to meet a colleague and “write on the walls”. We got a lot of value from that meeting.
And that’s the nub of it. Not blanket RTO edicts, as I’ve heard mentioned in multiple organisations recently, but autonomy and flexibility. Or, as one Gartner Analyst put it:
“The key to hybrid work is allowing employees the autonomy to work when they want and where they want.”Gavin Tay, Gartner Inc.
Provide a place for people to meet and collaborate. Provide a place with a desk and decent Internet connection for those who don’t have a suitable workspace at home. Encourage people to come together. But be clear what it is you are trying to achieve. If the answer involves filling up rows of hot desks, then you may want to think again.
It seems this is a topic I keep returning to (I clearly have Opinions on the topic), so here’s some posts I wrote earlier:
- Working from home vs living at work
- What does it mean to work flexibly?
- What’s the future of the office?