To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy
Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.
COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?
A mass remote work experiment
While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.
Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.
Success depends on criteria
The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.
But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.
Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.
Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.
What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.
The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.
Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.
Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.
Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.
Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.
Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.
Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.
Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.
Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.
Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.
Innovation is at risk
Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.
What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."
The workplace advantage
The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.
Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.
Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.