How to Get back to the Office without Going There

Employers want you to go back to the office, you don’t. How do we bridge that chasm?

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I bet you too, like me, miss those serendipitous conversations at the coffee machine, that helped getting things done, as well as allowed you to be aware of what was going on around you. If you felt left out of the conversations that matter, and, at the same time, you like your home office, then welcome to the club of hybrid workers!

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too… or, can you?

We will answer that question. But first, let’s get a level deeper and remind ourselves about productivity pros and cons related to the locations we can work at, in this post-pandemic world. Several dimensions such as physical activity levels, cost (e.g., gasoline to commute), etc., are intentionally left out of this discussion. We want to focus on individual versus organizational productivity throughput, during work hours.

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Work from home

PROS

  • No commute stress
    This point is pretty self-explanatory… a clear mind will perform better.
  • More focus
    This is not always true, especially if you consider I am writing this article with kids screaming in the background. Nevertheless, you can change your status to “do not disturb”, use earplugs and get things done, without colleagues walking to your desk looking for something from you.
  • Home comforts few steps away from your chair
    Personally, I think this is a big one! Have you ever felt so tired at the office that you couldn’t keep your eyes open, despite lots of coffee?
    There are a few companies that would tolerate having employees taking a nap at the office, even less that would not stigmatize them for doing so. At home, instead, when you feel a quick nap would recharge your batteries and allow you to be productive for the rest of the day, you are free to take it.
    This point does not only apply to naps. Sometimes, other activities would temporarily allow you to take a healthy break, and come back full of renewed energy.
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CONS

  • Feeling of being left out of the conversations that matter
    Not knowing what is happening with your company may be a scary feeling, and, at home, you are not able to sense what is going on. If you are the kind of person who does not cope well with uncertainty, you might feel a certain amount of constant discomfort that hinders your motivation and makes it harder to be productive.
  • Distractions and temptations
    While it is relatively easy to deal with moderate noise by using earplugs, often, an overly crowded home, family commitments, kids’ playdates, pets, solicitors, your neighbor’s leaf blower, etc., may generate distractions and prevent you from reaching a productive state.
    You are also close to the kitchen, your TV, your gaming console and other temptations. This negative point may be mitigated by a dedicated home office, however, it might not be enough.
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  • Too many meetings = more overtime work needed to complete tasks
    Of all the cons, this is, by far, the most impactful. The lack of coffee machine conversations you used to have at the office results in people spending much more time in virtual meetings, most of which are scheduled. In Feb 2021, Microsoft released data showing that the amount of time people spent in MS Teams meetings increased by a 2.5x factor, and it is still on the rise today.
    Back-to-back calendar events keep people busy communicating all day, with very limited time to focus on what really matters, hence pushing people to catch up with their important tasks overtime: nights and weekends.
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Work at the office

PROS

  • More diverse vibrant social life
    If you go to the office and enough people are there, then you can have some nice conversations and nurture relationships that would be lost in the virtual world. Virtually, there are very few chances to “discover” new colleagues, much less than in a crowded office.
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  • Visibility and sense of belonging
    At the office, you not only have a better idea of what is going on, you also have the chance to remind the bosses that you are part of the organization. They will see you, greet you, have some small talks with you, or perhaps business talks. In any case, your image will be fresh in their minds, much more than someone who is 100% remote and they never see him/her in person. This is beneficial for your career and makes you feel part of the organization.
  • Cross pollination
    Since you have less scheduled meetings and more impromptu conversations, you have the chance to physically meet people throughout the office spaces. Not only people who seek you or whom you seek, also unrelated colleagues from different teams that may bring new perspectives and ideas, allowing you to professionally grow faster, make better decisions, and know your organization at a deeper level.

CONS

  • Commute stress
    This point is pretty self-explanatory… a stressed mind will perform worse.
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  • Inability to focus
    When you are trying to focus at your desk, people may see you as “free” and interrupt you for many possible reasons. If your company is farseeing enough to provide quiet non-bookable rooms, you can roam throughout the office looking for one of those rooms to focus, and, if you find one, it likely has glass walls/doors. Through those glass features, you see a flow of people passing by, and some of them, who need your input asap, will bother you in there, as well.
    If you are the type of worker who loves external monitors, a mouse and a high quality keyboard, oftentimes, working in a quiet room isn’t a productive option, as you can’t find the hardware you need in there.
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  • Lack of privacy
    Do you work in an open space? Have you ever felt uncomfortable with people glancing at your monitor while having a chat behind you, or while walking by? Have you ever felt that more privacy would make you feel more comfortable and productive? I bet you did.
    Despite the fact you have nothing to hide, gawkers are always unwelcome and exercise unneeded social pressure that can lower your focus.
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Work in between office and home

How about work “in between” office and home? How about other locations like a coffee shop or a train? We will leave them out for now. They will be the subject for another article. Tip: follow me if you don’t want to miss it!

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Your employer’s point of view

What is your company’s position with regards to work locations?

On the one hand, if people work from home, your organization can save a huge amount of money by reducing spaces and related operational costs. In fact, Real Estate is the second largest cost in any organization, after wages.

On the other hand, leaving people far from each other negatively impacts company culture and sense of belonging. It also challenges IT to keep the security bar high outside of the corporate walls.

What about hybrid work? For instance, allowing people to spend 3 days at home and 2 at the office.

It’s a compromise. It better supports culture and cross-pollination, as well as it allows to save Real Estate cost by reducing the number of spaces and desks needed to ensure smooth operations. In the modern workplace, only Engineers who need a specialized workstation have a desk assigned to them. The rest of the desks are bookable for the day — so called hot desking and/or hoteling — allowing companies to reduce the office footprint up to 40%.

Despite the increase of adoption of modern workplace solutions, the incentives for an employee to go back to the office are very low.

Why should I go to the office, if the office is almost always empty?

From the employer perspective, the #1 question became: how do I incentivize people to go back to the office and reach enough critical mass to sustain a productive office life?

Based on my experience, culture also plays a role: if your employer embraces virtual interactions (or perhaps adopted it before the pandemic) then the forces driving people back to the office will likely be weaker.

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What does the ideal world look like?

Let’s play a fun game, focus on pros, combine work from home with work at the office, and outline the traits of the ideal work environment:

  • No commute stress
  • More focus
  • Home comforts few steps away from your chair
  • More vibrant social life
  • Visibility and sense of belonging
  • Less meetings, more impromptu conversations
  • Ability to focus at your convenience during the day, so that you don’t have to work overtime

Can you have all of that?

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The role of AI in assisting your day

Spoiler alert: you can! And you will.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions able to “fluidify” your day and adapt it to your needs are already available today, lowering the bar for you to have fruitful agile communications with colleagues, customers, partners, direct reports and bosses without messing with calendar slots.

How will you drive your day other than through your calendar?

By taking ownership and focusing on the right priorities, rather than being stuck with meetings scheduled in the past, often obsolete, that clash with what you should be doing, instead.

How can I communicate with others and get things done, if I am focusing on what I think I should do?

Doesn’t this approach hinder communications rather than fostering them?

Based on your and your team’s emerging communication needs, the AI will make sure you’ll talk to the people that matter, at the right moment for both, and you won’t have a fixed slot to stick to. Not having a calendar event for your meeting, as well as adjacent events that could end your meeting before decisions are made, will implicitly make the meeting goal-oriented, meaning shorter and on point. You will communicate more frequently, at the right moments, making decisions much faster than you do today.

How can I reach my personal goals and contribute to the organizational ones if I am not planning?

Planning is different from scheduling. You will still set your goals, figure out the path to achieve them, break down the path in milestones and focus on reaching them, one after the other. The difference is you will do that faster, without wasting time doing any of the following:

  • Wondering how to get a hold of someone who appears to be unreachable.
  • Making unsuccessful calls.
  • Spending time in endless “when can you talk?” back and forth messages.
  • Scheduling yet another avoidable meeting that will force you to stick to a certain time and duration, imposing you to squeeze real work in the few free slots left in your calendar. Certainly, not enough time to close your day before dinner.
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Let’s tie it altogether!

Given the capabilities we have just outlined, how does AI help implement the “ideal world” from a couple of paragraphs ago?

Let’s proceed point by point:

  • No commute stress
    Why would you go to the office? The AI will orchestrate better, faster, shorter impromptu communications for you, while at home.
  • More focus
    Since you are at home, and the AI will act as a smart firewall to let only important communications through at the right moments, then you will have more time to focus on solo tasks.
  • Home comforts few steps away from your chair
    Since you are now more productive at home, you have more moments to indulge… without exaggerating!
  • More vibrant social life
    More frequent, faster and shorter successful impromptu communications lower the bar for catching up with people in your network, without the classic tedious planning that results in scheduled 1:1 meetings.
    By the way, why would you go to the office if no one you need is there?
    Here is another thing AI can do for you: when you need to talk to someone in person (e.g., design workshop), AI can suggest a day to meet at the office, taking into account future physical presence by looking at workplace management data (e.g., desk reservations). Suddenly, trips to the office become productive, because people you need to interact with are there when you go. You can also discover new people, benefiting from cross-pollination.
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  • Visibility and sense of belonging
    When the AI suggests you meet others at the office on a certain day, it can take into account the expected presence of your bosses, too. In this way, your presence will maximize your exposure to higher grades. Plus, frequent collaborations with a larger number of people, thanks to faster and shorter impromptu conversations, will make you feel part of the organization.
  • Less meetings, more impromptu conversations
    This one should be quite clear at this point. The AI is changing the rules of the game and freeing you from calendar nonsense.
  • Ability to focus at your convenience during the day, so that you don’t have to work overtime
    The AI adapts to the way you work. Thus, if it understands you are currently focusing, then it doesn’t bother you. Rather, it will wait for the right moment, for example the end of a break, or a meeting ended earlier than expected, and inject important communications into those moments.
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You can have your cake and eat it, too

We are at the beginning of a new smart era whereby, despite being working from the comfort of your home, your office or in a hybrid mode, you will be able to experience the best of all those worlds combined, thanks to new innovative services that implement new smarter and more efficient ways of working.

It’s like going to the office, without physically going there.

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Today, companies across any industry have the opportunity to make a choice:

  • Stick to their costly legacy calendaring practices and keep chasing unavailable people, as well as the latest calendar management apps, hoping to marginally reduce the time wasted scheduling,

Or

  • Embrace new fluid ways of working, outside of the current calendaring box and its limitations, with the chance of establishing a productivity-based competitive advantage over their change-averse competition.

Which avenue would you pick?

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Dario De Santis

Dario De Santis

Long-termist visionary technology Entrepreneur and Product Leader, with a strong passion for improving people's productivity through innovative solutions.