Coming to the Office or Working Remotely: What’s the Future?

There are two significant, and seemingly inconsistent, trends taking place in the office world right now and how this battle shakes out may ultimately dictate the future of the workplace as we know it. 

On the one hand, a greater percentage of the workforce than ever before is asking for the flexibility to work from home. On the other hand, there’s a growing segment of the workforce that is tired of working from home and are flocking to co-working spaces. 

How then do we reconcile these two seemingly conflicting trends? Is it simply a matter of “the grass is always greener” or is there something much larger and substantive taking place that goes to the essence of what it means to be employed? 

Coming to the office or working remotely

“They say on your deathbed you never wish you spent more time at the office — but I will.” – Michael Scott, The Office

As a species, humans generally crave social interaction. That explains the coworking explosion.  As we increasingly isolate ourselves within our homes with the proliferation of home delivery services from Amazon to Grubhub, we necessarily frustrate our natural instincts for human contact. Coworking companies are filling this growing void by creating a sense of community for an entire class of workers who never had this option before.

Members of these coworking establishments believe that their work lives are richer, more fulfilling and more productive just by being there.  That’s not always the case with today’s corporate offices, however. Despite the extraordinary amounts of money that many companies are spending to create edgy, open planned environments that mirror the coworking aesthetics, in many cases these organizations have failed to replicate the sense of community that makes people want to come to the office.

Workers are finding that a growing percentage of their daily tasks can be performed remotely. If they are going to sit in their chair and write reports, analyze data or draft a brief without much face to face interaction with their co-workers, can’t they do it from home without losing commuting time, paying city taxes (assuming they commute into the city for work) or dealing with the distractions of a noisy office? 

The answer is “yes,” and this answer is going to apply with greater frequency as technology continues to advance. As a result, if companies want their people to come to the office, they’re going to need to create a sense of community and a corporate culture that makes people want to come to work.

A culture is established through behaviors, not drywall, millwork and furniture. The following example illustrates this point.

A while back we toured a client’s newly constructed headquarters space. One of the senior executives walked us through a very nice employee lounge area adjacent to the executive suite that was furnished with soft couches, rugs and a large screen TV. He stopped in front of the space and said, “This was a big waste of money. No one uses it.” We asked him if he and the other senior executives used this area. He said they did not because they were too busy. We pointed out that if employees don’t see the senior executives using the lounge and think it’s viewed as a place where people go when they don’t have enough work to do, employees aren’t going to use it.

The senior executives unknowingly created a corporate culture that discouraged their people from hanging out with each other in their new, expensive lounge. If they really wanted people to use the communal space and promote a culture of social interaction, the executives needed to lead by example. Instead, people were staying at their desks – a work experience they could replicate from home.

What can companies do to create compelling workplaces where people want to be? 

Again, important lessons can be learned by looking to the coworking industry. A young accountant may go to a coworking location because it exposes her to a whole ecosystem of entrepreneurs, small businesses and other professionals who represent potential clients. She’s much more likely to get new business by coming to the office than if she stayed home. Coming to the office is a good business decision.

In sum, people will choose a behavior if it is economically rational or enjoyable. Likewise, companies need to create opportunities within their offices for their employees to grow and advance professionally and personally. They also need to make their employees feel like they are an integral part of something greater by building a brand that they can relate to and be proud of. Too often we see shiny, new office spaces that could belong to anyone. The space does not reflect the values, culture or history of the company that is housed there. It doesn’t compel anyone to be there because it doesn’t feel uniquely theirs.

The impact of COVID-19

“An office is a place to live life to the fullest. To the max. An office is a place where dreams come true.” – Michael Scott, The Office

The remote working phenomenon is going to be pressure tested in the coming months as we deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Companies who previously resisted the work from home paradigm are now being forced to implement it. Hopefully the need to accommodate the effects of COVID-19 will be a short-term situation. However, what happens if six months from now, companies see that they received good production from their employees who were not in the office and the employees are now used to working remotely? Will employers embrace this arrangement and start to reevaluate how much office space they really need?

Alternatively, if the employers believe a physical presence in the office is essential to sustain their corporate culture, they will need to work even harder to draw their employees back to the office.

Conclusion

The future of the office workplace is in the balance as technology and now COVID-19 enable or force us to work remotely. If businesses are to preserve their cultures and ensure employee loyalty, they are going to need to provide more compelling reasons for people to come to work.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 18, 2020.

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