Why is culture-building dependent on water coolers? Is the centralized office a failure of imagination, or the key to sparking collaboration amongst Zoom-fatigued workers? Here's a roundup of return-to-office news - and my own twist on the future of work.

May 12, 2021, April 4, 2021, on the future of work, @jonerp, @diginomica, May 24, 2021, its pursuit of transnational localism, Wainewright again

The return-to-office debate has become downright combustible – and confusing. That doesn’t diminish its importance.

We’re at the cusp of an opportunity to either re-invent white collar work, or revert to an unimaginative normal. Along that spectrum, where will we land?

My colleague Derek du Preez believes command-and-control types are in for a rude awakening. In Those pushing return of the five day office week will lose in the end – talent will dictate the terms, he writes:

A report this morning on the BBC has argued that the five day office week will return ‘within two years’. This thinking is lazy at best, embarrassing at worst.

I wholeheartedly agree with the latter sentence, but I worry about the first sentence becoming a reality, as the failure-of-work-imagination sets in. On the surface, recent Big Tech office policy announcements seem to support du Preez’s views:

  • Facebook says all employees can request permanent remote work.
  • Amazon, one of the most notorious ‘We need you in the office, unless you are doing dehumanizing warehouse or delivery work managed by algorithms” employers, recently revised its return-to-office guidance, says employees can work two days a week remotely.
  • In a detailed and revealing letter, Apple employees pushed back against returning to the office.

Seems like a remote work trend? Perhaps, but the fine print isn’t as clear. Yes, all Facebook employees can request remote work, but if it isn’t approved, employees will be expected to be on-site half the time. As for Apple employees, if they aren’t willing to back up their “push back” by actually leaving Apple in significant numbers, that strongly-worded letter will become a historical footnote. But here’s the bigger problem I see:

Unless companies take bold steps to put remote workers on equal political footing with their schmoozing office colleagues, I believe the pressure to “not miss out” on the informal advancement opportunities in the office setting will push remote workers back to the fringes, while most suck it up for the commuting grind in fear of career displacement.

Now, the fringes are not necessarily a bad place to be. You can use that fringe to create differentiating IP, and build an industry reputation on social channels, thereby re-inventing your career. I’ve saved my own bacon many times via such tactics. Heck, we built diginomica that way. But I worry about the unequal footing that could sink so-called “flexible” work arrangements.

Let me make my biases clear: I’m a remote work advocate, or, to be more accurate, a “flexible work” advocate. I am hoping for two things:

  • That employers truly offer a range of working models – may the models with the highest levels of employee well-being win (if you get well-being right, productivity will come along for the ride).
  • I am rooting for remote/flexible work to triumph over knee-jerk office “culture,” and spirit-crushing commutes.

Some argue we should begin with a more radical question:

What is the office good for, anyhow?

I believe that the office is superior for some work objectives, but only for a handful of things – far less than others contend. Consider the assumption that the office is superior for collaboration. Is it? As du Preez wrote: 

A hybrid world will likely become the most popular model for forward-thinking organizations, ones that look to their office space to become hubs for collaboration, team building and fostering culture.

Sounds right. But in the letter from Apple employees to management, they write:

Orgs are rarely co-located within walking distance, let alone in the same building, meaning our best collaboration has always required remote communication with teams in other offices and across timezones, since long before the pandemic. We encourage distributed work from our business partners, and we’ve been a remote-communication necessary company for some time, a vision of the future that Steve Jobs himself predicated in an interview from 1990. This may explain how mandatory out-of-office work enabled tearing down cross-functional communication barriers to deliver even better results.

“Culture building” is the most common office defense, but is it really culture-building? Or is it the quiet contentment managers feel when they see your head in a cube? As per my potshot at WeWork’s CEO:

WeWork’s CEO said people who are most comfortable working from home are the ‘least engaged’ with their job https://t.co/4QgolprpDI

-> in other words without office politics and ladder-climbing-manouvers there is no intrinsic motivation or purpose for your teams to rally around.

— Jon Reed (@jonerp) May 12, 2021

I’m not alone:

Going to the office gave me precisely 0 advantage in the career advancement so far. In fact, people who helped most knew me mostly virtually and / or weren’t even on the same continent. The “water cooler” culture breeds exclusive “clubs” and has to go.

— Jelena Perfiljeva (@JelenaAtLarge) April 4, 2021

So if we strip out “collaboration” and “culture” from the so-called benefits of office work, what else is left? I’ll take it further: why do we need a central office? Even if the office has a purpose, why wouldn’t we want to create/rent co-working spaces and office hot spots close to where our remote workers live? Once you eliminate a grueling commute, the experience of “office work” changes drastically.

Every so often, I do my best to disrupt DisrupTV, hosted by Ray Wang and Vala Afshar. In my last appearance on the future of work, I laid out the issues employers are underestimating in their return-to-work policies:

What employers should know with return to office work, by @jonerp, co-founder of @diginomica:

1 Hybrid works is personal
2 Culture is not location
3 Hot gatherings augment hot-desking
4 Hybrid not a caste system
5 Tactical retreats
6 Improved ventilationhttps://t.co/h1wpJ5hYen

— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) May 24, 2021

I’ll delineate each of these points in my next return-to-office piece, but for now, as I vented on DisrupTV:

  • How essential is the office for culture-building? Is our company culture so weak and fragile, or so over the top, that we have to be in the office to get a culture injection, or suck down massive amounts of Koolaid?
  • You need to be in the office to navigate politics and climb the ladder” – Well, perhaps, but we’re not exactly getting diverse and exciting leadership teams by doing it that way, are we?

So what is the office good for? We can debate culture-building and collaboration. Personal preferences aside, I believe the core office value is:

Mentoring and onboarding junior employees – and for younger workers looking to build their community and networks. 

The career advice sessions I’ve conducted with recent college graduates convinced me that remote work is a tough road for those just starting down a career path. I think back to my early start as a founding editor of a community paper – that magical time would not have translated to a remote work setting.

From what I can tell, the leading collaboration providers are coming to a similar conclusion. As my colleague Phil Wainewright wrote in Team 21 – Atlassian, Slack and Zoom CEOs reflect on a year of distributed teamwork:

In this new world, the office becomes a place to socialize rather than the primary place that work gets done.

That doesn’t negate the office, but it implies a fairly drastic re-invention. Wainewright quotes Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes:

We meet to socialize much more at Atlassian now, whereas we used to meet to work. Once you separate those, you end up with very different constructs in office layouts and stuff over time.

As I see it, this translates to three things:

  1. Rethink the office – both its purpose and its design. Question all assumptions about what the office is good for, until you find the ones that stick to the wall for your company.
  2. Re-evaluate the central office concept – consider decentralized collaboration centers and “hot spots.”
  3. Before you pat yourself on the back for your hybrid/flexible office policy, make sure that remote workers aren’t relegated to second-class participants.

Some companies are taking that second point farther. Example: Zoho and its pursuit of transnational localism. Talk about a different vision of work: infuse rural communities with sustainable economies and tech talent (and upskill local residents as well). As Wainewright wrote:

While some business leaders argue that the only way to maintain their corporate culture is through a return to city-center office towers, Zoho is doubling down on a policy of distributing its workforce across small local hubs, often in rural areas.

On this leveling the remote playing field point, technology can surely help – perhaps even holograms. It is encouraging to see the leading collaboration players pushing into hybrid tech. Wainewright again:

The need for social interaction inevitably leads to a hybrid arrangement where people will still need places to meet even while others work elsewhere, says Yuan. Technology tools will therefore have to evolve to support these new patterns of work, so that for example people who are calling in to join a group gathered in a conference room will feel as present as those who are physically there. “A lot of feature enhancement, a lot of a product innovation, can truly enable the hybrid,” he suggests.

This leaves open the challenge of creating better return-to-office policies – and what employers are overlooking. I’ll get to that next time.

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