Office or home – where’s the best place to work from in the New Normal?

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 16.53.58

The question about when we return to work is also a question about how we return to work. For many, remote working has been a revelation. Perhaps not ideal in every respect but certainly helpful in many: the convenience of not commuting, the realisation that Zoom, Teams, Miro, Skype, Whatsapp and other platforms mean it’s possible to stay in touch in ways we hadn’t realised.

So there’s a fair amount of “unlock inertia” going around and a good set of very reasonable questions being asked:

  • will anyone want to work 9-5 anymore?
  • and on every day of the week?
  • can we carry on having those online meetings because they seem, at least for some purposes, to be more efficient than round-table events?
  • and how do we stop ourselves drifting back to the Old Normal?

We’ve been discussing the future of work at Space Syntax, both for ourselves and for our clients who we help create workplaces that foster interaction, encourage serendipitous encounters and nurture creativity. I wrote recently about what the office of the future might look like, with no desks and board rooms – a little provocatively for some as it turned out, but deliberately done to stimulate our thinking about why we need offices.

A couple of conversations today with colleagues Anna Rose and Ed Parham have developed some further thoughts about the purpose of work in terms of a) the different types of activity that typically occur in offices and b) the types of behaviour needed to undertake that activity.

The table above is a first attempt to cross-reference between activities and behaviours (I’ve already edited the table twice in the course of writing this short post). I’ve placed a tick against which behaviours are typically associated with which activities. For example, process-based activities such as regular meetings with repetitive agendas require a set of activities that combine collaboration, concentration and communication. The fourth behaviour, contemplation, is arguably less important for process-based work and more associated with the behaviours that are creative and reflective.

In this way, each activity is paired, or not, with each behaviour. For the sake of a better word, I’m calling each activity/behaviour pairing a task (please suggest anything you think is better – I’m all ears).

I’ve then taken each task and asked the questions, which is better done in a shared workplace? and which can be done remotely eg from home?

Of course, you might argue that all tasks are better done in offices so that reflective contemplation can be quickly converted to creative collaboration. After all, that is what good offices do well: one moment you’re doing one task and the next you’re involved in another, perhaps unexpectedly as the result of an unplanned encounter with a fellow staff member of visitor.

But the ideal may be the enemy of the possible in the months ahead – offices may not be able to accommodate all staff members at all times and, to maintain staff motivation, not everyone will want to come to work as much as they used to. It’s a problem of both supply and demand.

Rosters are going to have to be created that assign people to remote working for some, possibly considerable, parts of the week. Organisations will need to think through their processes for deciding who comes in and who stays away. Doing so by simply dividing the workforce between Team Red and Team Blue may well be overly crude, with consequential risks for workplace efficiency and economic productivity.

We already think that simple, team-based separation won’t work for Space Syntax – and we don’t think we’ll be alone in reaching this conclusion. The characteristics of our work vary from task to task and we want instead to find a way to do the right work in the right place.

So we think it’s better instead to think a little deeper about who needs to do what kinds of work when – and whether that work requires the benefits of physical proximity, or whether it can be done online.

The table above is a tool that might help organisations chart their own course.

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