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Commentary: Offices are better for mingling than for focusing

As remote work frees up desks, companies are learning to remake their spaces to emphasise interaction, says Bloomberg Opinion's Sarah Green Carmichael.

Commentary: Offices are better for mingling than for focusing

File photo of two employees playing pool in the office. (Photo: iStock/hxyume)

BOSTON: The rise of remote work might be the best thing to ever happen to the office. 

Until the COVID-19 pandemic upended our work lives, the office functioned as a do-it-all, be-everything-to-all-people space, balancing desks for individual work with conference rooms for team meetings and social areas for chit-chat. As a result, it did none of these jobs very well. 

We ended up with open-plan spaces where sound carries freely – and with a lot of employees wearing headphones to block out the clamor. There are never enough conference rooms, so employees commute in just to meet over Zoom. It’s a space where it’s hard to be efficient, yet also hard to be collaborative and creative.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. Embracing some degree of remote work eliminates the need for so many desks, freeing space that can be prioritised for what offices do best: Providing co-workers an opportunity to mingle. 

It will take a different mindset on management’s part, but if leaders can embrace the idea that remote work is for concentrating and headquarters is for cooperating, offices might become very different and vastly superior: More meeting rooms, more social spaces, more natural light, more greenery.

Executives might not be able to shorten the long commutes remote workers are desperate to avoid, but they can rethink what their offices offer employees and, in so doing, make those treks more worthwhile. 

COFFEE BARS, POOL TABLES

The office of the future will be smaller, but nicer, says Diane Hoskins, co-chief executive officer of design and architecture firm Gensler, who is already seeing some clients adopt this type of layout.

She says firms are paying more attention to amenities that really support social interaction among colleagues —  Wi-Fi-enabled terraces, coffee bars, pool tables. Common areas with sofas, soaring ceilings and walls bedecked with plants.

The office itself might be relocated to a part of town that’s closer to transit or near bars and restaurants where employees go after work. Relying on a communal fridge to foster employee interaction is out. Making the office feel like an upscale hotel lobby is in.

To really get employees to interact with each other, companies that provide food and drink should rethink how it’s presented, says Ben Waber, CEO of talent analytics firm Humanyze.

Rather than offering pre-made coffee, an espresso machine gives people a chance to chat as they wait for the machine to do its work. Serving food buffet-style encourages employees to sit and linger over their meal, as opposed to pre-packaged lunches that workers can easily (and antisocially) bring back to their desks.

The office will become a place workers return to willingly, if less frequently, if it offers something they can’t get at home: Camaraderie.

File photo of two colleagues having a discussion over coffee. (Photo: iStock/hxyume)

GET RID OF THE ROWS OF CUBICLES

Yes, a workplace still needs to have some areas for heads-down tasks. But that shouldn’t be rows of cubicles or even assigned desks; a better model for many companies would be a library-like room where people sit with their laptops when they need to work quietly between meetings. (There was just such a room at one of my old jobs, and it was beloved for offering a silent refuge where we could work uninterrupted.)

Prioritising social interaction is why Salesforce decided to reduce its footprint in San Francisco and take a long-term lease at a luxury ranch in the California redwoods; employees are more likely to form meaningful bonds in a space that’s actually conducive to socialising.

It’s also why Harley Davidson has announced plans to repurpose its 500,000 sq ft Milwaukee headquarters, even as the company continues to bring employees together for specific purposes like product development. 

Companies like these have recognised – at long last – that simply seating people near each other and tearing down all the walls doesn’t foster collaboration.

That was always "a fantasy", says Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, a Purdue University historian and author of Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office. (In fact, research shows that open offices lead to fewer interactions between colleagues.) They’ve realised that collaboration and team culture are too important to be left to chance.

Returning to the office – can you say no?

That’s one reason that Zapier, a workflow automation company with an all-remote workforce, invests in quarterly offsites.

The entire purpose is to socialise over team lunches, group hikes and games, says Raj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the firm. Choudhury found that employees who interact at the offsites are more likely to help each other when back in the virtual world —  an effect that’s especially pronounced for the women on the team.

Companies investing in nicer headquarters are hoping that onsite is the new offsite. While this may seem like a contradiction — why invest in a place people go less often? — it’s the viability of remote work that frees up the office to become primarily a social gathering space.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far in compelling workers to fraternise. There’s a fine line between fostering the connections that improve morale and destroying professional distance.

A friend recently confessed that after her company announced a team-building exercise at a water park, she started Googling “work-appropriate bathing suits” — a horrifying oxymoron. Maybe stick with the nice sofas and fancy espresso machines.

Source: Bloomberg/aj
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