Indian woman laughing at funny joke eating pizza with diverse coworkers in office, friendly work team enjoying positive emotions and lunch together, happy colleagues staff group having fun at break

In Praise of the Office!

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There has been a lot of debate and discussion about remote working since the start of lockdown. As ever there are advocates, detractors and those who have mixed feelings. But, generally, I get the sense that C-19 has ended office working as we know it, which I think is a real shame, so I wanted to write a piece in praise of the office!

Whilst I know many people are currently concerned about returning to the office, citing travelling on public transport and an inability to socially distance at work as key reasons, what about when all this is over because, at some stage in the future, it will be. What about when our fears have subsided and our threat response is no longer in overdrive?  Would you rather work from home or in the office?

The Upsides of Remote Working

Companies have, in many instances, been surprised by how much more productive their people have been since lockdown. Despite the distractions caused by C-19 and the inherent challenges with working from home such as sharing workspaces, broadband issues, young kids to entertain and older kids to home-school, employees have proven that they can be trusted. No surprises there then!

The appeal of this to companies is self-evident with lower overheads and less travel expenses being key.  There are also benefits to many employees including less commuting, more time with loved ones and money saved on travel, takeaway coffees and lunches. But there are also many downsides.

The Downsides of Remote Working

In a recent study by Digital Ocean, an American cloud infrastructure provider, 82% of US tech professionals working remotely said they felt burnt out, 52% said they worked longer hours remotely and 40% said they felt they were expected to contribute more than those based in the office.  Loneliness is also an issue with many surveys suggesting around 20% of people working from home find this a challenge.

In my own conversations and coaching sessions, many of my clients are struggling with makeshift workspaces, back to back virtual meetings where they might not move for hours on end, resultant physical problems such as bad backs and severe headaches and an even more intense “always on” mentality with no boundaries between work and home life resulting in less exercise, unhealthy eating habits, more alcohol consumption and working later in the evenings.

What’s So Great About The Office?

But what’s so great about the office?

We have known for a long time that working people have a lower incidence of mental health issues than non-working people. A big part of that is that work gives you a sense of meaning and purpose which you will still retain.

But it’s also about routine and structure. Getting up at a certain time every day, travelling into the office for a given start-time, having your regular meetings, going out for a coffee or bite to eat at lunchtime with a colleague and the all-important commute home – often decompression time and a good demarcation point between work and home.

Even more than that work gives you a sense of belonging and of course the camaraderie, friendships and even partnerships you strike up along the way. Two of my best friends to this day are people I met in my first week at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985. I wonder if I would have developed such enduring friendships over Zoom as opposed to hours spent in the Carpenter’s Arms in Howland Street drinking vodka and tonic!?

Don’t get me wrong. Organisations and teams have been doing amazing things using virtual technology. Virtual kitchens, virtual coffees, virtual quizzes, virtual socials and the like. Many people have told me that they have got closer to their team-mates since lockdown having made an extra special effort due to no longer being physically together and because of the challenging environment we have all been experiencing. I have personally been surprised at how deeply you can connect with coaching clients 1:1 and with small groups via a digital screen. So, it is not all bad.

But for me, you cannot beat the buzz of 25, 50 or 100+ people in a room doing their thing. Sharing the highs, supporting each other through the lows, enjoying the spontaneous laughter and silly pranks. It’s the daily drama of the office. Can you truly recreate that remotely?

Moreover, no matter how many daily check-ins you do as a leader, nothing beats walking the floor to gauge the temperature of your team, looking someone fully in the eye to check they’re OK and placing a supportive hand on their shoulder if they’re not or grabbing 5 minutes with them to talk the issue through. I get worried when leaders tell me how much more productive they have been since they started working from home. I talk a lot in my coaching sessions about the task/relationship continuum and how important it is to maintain a good balance between the two. Those comments make me fear that relationship is suffering at the expense of task.

Then there is the random chat in the corridor or the ad hoc conversation that sparks an idea which snowballs as you both get over-excited about it.  We seem to have lost that spontaneity. You cannot tell if someone looks like they could be interrupted or when they’re grabbing a coffee when you can’t even see each other. You can send an instant message which may or may not get picked up instantly or schedule a virtual call but by then the moment may be lost.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe for Millennials and Gen Z’s, this is the future of work and they are happy with it.  But if that’s the case I’m glad my career began in the eighties and I’m not just starting out.  More flexible working in the future would be fantastic but give me the office any day over 100% remote working.

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