The Great Office Debate (Part 1 of 2). Home vs. Office Arguments

8 May

The Great Office Debate (Part 1 of 2)

Home vs. Office Arguments

It seems the world is divided.  Well, around most things.  But here, I am talking about whether “to be, or not to be” (at the office).  This first part explores what’s driving the debate.

One can argue the robustness and subtleties of the many (many) “back to the office” studies out there … but one thing is clear:  we’re headed on a collision course between many employees’ desire to continue working from home (at least partially) and many employers’ desire to get back to the office (at least partially).  The tension is broad and heated.  A Stanford University study shows 42% of the US workforce has been working from home full-time during the pandemic, and several studies suggest around two-thirds wanting some kind of hybrid model as we emerge from the pandemic.   

Remote work is now a table-stake.  Virtualization of work and careers (working anywhere, anytime) is now possible and more familiar, and it’s here to stay.  We used to talk about “going to the office” and leave “away from the office” messages on email.  Now, “being in the office” just means being in a state of working (wherever or whenever that might be).  The idea that you must be physically present to be productive is just not valid anymore. And there is no going back.  There is only going forward to the “next normal” with thoughtful design and action.

Let’s take a look at the end of the spectrum from each point of view. 

The WFH (Working From Home) Arguments:

It’s not actually about working from home, but about “working from anywhere.”  The theme here is “flexibility” and “convenience” from the employee’s perspective.   There are two fundamental drivers:

  • We don’t NEED to be in the office anyway 
  • We have adapted to building an office environment at home.  Creating a quiet space in the first place, and outfitting it with stronger home wi-fi, getting ergonomic chairs, standing desks, multiple large monitors and great zoom cameras.  
  • We’ve become expert Zoom and Teams users.  
  • … and to top it off, we’re saving the company money.  (Companies paid over $900B in rent last year).
  • We don’t WANT to be in the office
  • We like the flexibility that comes with virtual work and the at-home work lifestyle.
  • We’ve learned to inter-task (like multitasking, but in small sequential dispersed activities). We pop in laundry and other home chores, juggle passing children, squeeze in a walk and on-line fitness class.
  • We’re saving our money (on commuting, clothing and away-from-home food).
  • We’ve eliminated hours of commuting and the expectation to get dressed up (who hasn’t taken a video looking presentable from the top up and sporting athletic shorts below the desk?!).
  • We’ve often moved to more remote locations, further from offices and airports which are now inconvenient to get to.
  • We’re out of the “face-time” and “ office hours” businesses and are adult enough to be trusted to manage our own time.
  • There is talk of the imminent arrival of “Zoom doors” and other casual pop-in technologies that will make up for the missing social interaction pieces anyway.
  • We’re definitely safe in relative isolation at home, but who knows about the office.
  • … and, for many, we’ve even welcomed in a puppy who wants our attention.  

Bottom line, we’ve made ourselves as efficient (or close to as efficient) as before, and we’ve made ourselves a very comfy nest.  About 30% of we working professionals say we would quit if we had to return to the office, according to LiveCareer.  And over 40% of us would not even consider a new job if it did not include some flexibility to work remotely.  This is our new reality and expectation.

The RTW (Return To Office) Arguments:

The number one driver for employers seems to be “effectiveness.”  Not just “efficient” (flying the plane fast), but “effective” (flying the plane fast in the right direction).  

  • Community.  We humans are social beings wanting social connections and we are arguably better off interacting face to face.  Particularly when relationships are new (e.g., onboarding, mergers, reorgs), and where cultures are rich and distinct (e.g., rituals, social interactions).   
  • Collaborating on new ideas.  It’s hard to beat a group of people with a white board and sticky notes.
  • Connecting and engaging with managers.  Particularly the informal “drop by” access and communicating sensitive messages (e.g., performance reviews, feedback).  
  • Leading a disparate team is a new art-form for many; we’re used to working with people who are centrally located and we’re not quite sure how best to do it now.
  • Monitoring productivity.  It allows us to “see” if people are really working, and to grab colleagues quickly when we need them.  
  • Reading subtle cues, which can be more difficult to discern over zoom.
  • Use of legacy infrastructure investments (secure networks, phones, computers, meeting rooms).
  • Reducing burnout from “living at work”
  • Loneliness.  The covid pandemic has led to a loneliness pandemic with potentially huge costs from disengagement and burnout … and better technology does not build a sense of connectedness.  Without broad return to work, there will be a workforce health crisis, and a resulting HR nightmare. 

Bottom line:  The “return to the office” may not be as simple as we imagined at the beginning of Covid.

I welcome your thoughts on what drives the tensions between “work from home” and “work from the office”… and next week I will share my thoughts about where we go from here. 

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