The End of the Office: Telework Lays Bare The Empty Promises of Offices
The novel coronavirus outbreak of 2020 and its resulting disease, COVID-19, lays bare one undeniable truth for office workers and their employers.
Many (most?) employees don’t need to be working in the office to begin with.
The Empty Promises of Offices
Offices are supposed to be these magical collaborative environments where we meet our co-workers each day around the coffee machine, sit down at our desk, and get down to work. They provide a clear delineation (or boundary) between when a person is “at work” and when they’re not. They provide opportunities for face-to-face time with co-workers and supervisors. But such collaboration opportunities also interrupt work attention (or “flow”), and meetings are, for most people, a wasteful time-suck.
Face-to-face communication remains the gold standard among humans. It is the clearest, most concise way to provide cues — both verbal and nonverbal — to others as a topic is discussed, whether one-on-one or in a meeting. But too much of that face-to-face time is wasted. It’s spent going through a Powerpoint (that could easily be done at your computer), or one person talking, giving a presentation, and not really looking for honest input (just agreement). Employees in an office nowadays do more communication on chat apps than they do face-to-face.
Humans are largely desirous of social bonds, so offices used to be a petri dish combining both work and social life. But many office environments have increasingly made it more challenging for employees to engage in social activities, as HR departments have erred on the side of caution. Work dating has become a minefield, and for many, a component of a hostile work environment. It safest to keep your head down and just do your work.
Benefits of Ending Office Space
Whether you call it working from home, remote work, or a “distributed work” system, forgoing an office environment comes with many benefits for a company.
Large office space is expensive. Large, modern, pretty office space in the middle of a bustling city is the most expensive. If you’re not a company like Apple that can afford to build its own headquarters away from downtown, chances are many of you are working in such an expensive office.
Companies pay for that overhead in the belief it’s a necessary component of doing business. And maybe for some businesses, that’s true. For instance, a company that regularly needs to meet with others face-to-face — think ad agencies, physicians’ and dentists’ offices, architects — having physical office space is a necessity.
But for many more, it is an unnecessary jamming of people’s round pegs of diverse work interests and needs into square hole-like cubicles.
You have to be physically in the same room to be collaborative? Tell that to tens of thousands of developers and programmers who’ve been working around the world on software projects having never seen one another. And they’ve been doing this kind of work for decades. Many apps and pieces of software are written by a team of developers that work in different countries around the world.
You have to be physically in the same room to ensure your company’s brand is well-represented, troubleshoot problems, and that messaging is consistent? Tell that to the thousands of American companies who outsource their only touchpoint with their customers to call centers in Pakistan and India. Many have found a way to do this with little disruption to their core business.
You have to have physical meetings in order to ensure you read each other’s body language properly? Try Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Webex, Skype or one of the myriad of other teleconferencing services readily available that have been in use for years.
Working from Home, Well, Works!
Working from home, or a “distributed work environment,” is something Matt Mullenweg embraced when he started Automattic (the good folks behind Wordpress, which powers more than a third of all websites) in 2005. It’s something I also embraced a year later, when I went full-time with my 25-year-old website, Psych Central, the internet’s independent mental health resource.
Distributed work environments mean employers trust their staff to do the work they’re paid to do. There’s no looking over someone’s shoulder nor having employees accounting for every minute of their day. It relies on there existing a fundamental trust between employee and employer. The employer needs to trust that the employee is going to get their work done in a timely and efficient manner. The employee needs to trust that the employer is going to successfully manage a distributed work environment.
Most employees like it. While it takes some getting used to — such as setting up new boundaries between “work time” and personal time at home — it comes with a whole host of benefits. Less money and, more importantly, less time spent on transit. More healthy eating. More time to exercise and for family. Less time spent on office gossip and politics.
Embrace the Future of Work
Twitter recently announced that even after the pandemic has passed, anyone who wants to continue working from home can. This will be the first of many companies to come to the same conclusion about the benefits of telework, and offer the same deal to its employees.
It’s not a cure-all for a faltering business or to deal with existing challenges faced by a company. If your business is failing, distributed work won’t fix it. The reduction in the costs of office leases, coffee, and furniture will be partially replaced by licenses for software like Zoom and your employee’s remote work expenses. But the savings for many companies will be immense.
You’ll be amazed at how well your company can do by allowing your employees to work from wherever they want. And we’re seeing firsthand, businesses are not suffering from productivity losses during the novel coronavirus outbreak. In fact, for most companies, productivity has remained the same — the work is still getting done.
Now is the time to cut the cord to that expensive office. Downsize your physical presence. Let your employees be free of the cubicle. Both you and your employees will appreciate it in the long run.