Innovating the future of office life

by Sarah Firisen

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been spending more time in the office than I have since the start of COVID. I work for a technology start-up, and our New York office used to look and feel just as shows like Silicon Valley portrayed such offices: cool furniture, fancy coffee machines, lots of free snacks, gaming systems and board games piled up in a dedicated room, and lots of young people who gave the office a fun, high energy, even if noisy, vibe. But this visit, while the snacks and coffee machines are still there, the office has a rather ghost town-like feel. There’s been no mandate to return to the office, so for the most part, people haven’t. Every day I saw my colleague Andy who lives in a Manhattan apartment that’s too crowded with family and a dog. He escapes to the office for some peace of quiet. Then there was the receptionist and the facilities manager, who had no choice but to be there. But that was it for regulars. The odd person would float in for a bit, have a meeting, then leave. Is this the future of office life?

Some companies have recalled workers to the office, at the least for a few days every week. But many haven’t, and perhaps never will. About seven months into the COVID pandemic, I questioned what the future of work would look like, “employee productivity is up. There have been enormous savings from lack of business travel and reduced real estate costs for many companies. We now know that, for the most part, we do have the technology infrastructure to support remote working at scale. This convergence of technology, employee productivity, and increased profitability for companies means that, for many people, some version of our current home office life will continue indefinitely.” A year and a half later, there’s no doubt that, while people miss some of the social aspects of on-site working, there are lots of things they don’t miss.

Most people don’t miss the commute, the time wasted getting ready for work each morning, and the inevitable time spent in water-cooler chatter. We’ve enjoyed the work-life balance that remote work has given us. We can unload the dishwasher while listening to a conference call. We can walk the dog in the middle of the day. We have more flexibility about when we work out. There’s more time to spend with family and friends. And we’re more productive without the inevitable distractions of an office full of people. Of course, we’ve paid a price for this flexibility. The boundaries between work and home have blurred so much that we no longer feel the need to put Zoom backgrounds up to hide our homes and kids. If your living room is your office, when are you working and when aren’t you? Sometimes it can feel like I start working the second I open my eyes and check my email in the morning. And, unable to resist reading emails I see come in during the evening, work doesn’t end until I go to sleep.

If workers are more productive and companies are saving money on real estate and travel, why are any companies bringing workers back? This Atlantic article suggests that it’s because managers fear remote workers, “Some of the people loudly calling for a return to the office are not the same people who will actually be returning to the office regularly. The old guard’s members feel heightened anxiety over the white-collar empires they’ve built, including the square footage of real estate they’ve leased and the number of people they’ve hired.” The article posits that perhaps the real issue for managers is that “Remote work lays bare many brutal inefficiencies and problems that executives don’t want to deal with because they reflect poorly on leaders and those they’ve hired. Remote work empowers those who produce and disempowers those who have succeeded by being excellent diplomats and poor workers, along with those who have succeeded by always finding someone to blame for their failures. It removes the ability to seem productive (by sitting at your desk looking stressed or always being on the phone), and also, crucially, may reveal how many bosses and managers simply don’t contribute to the bottom line.” This is a bold statement, and certainly isn’t the only reason that companies are recalling their workforce to the office. But there’s no doubt that remote work has had a leveling effect. This seems to be particularly true for women and people of color who, in various surveys, expressed far more satisfaction with remote work and anxiety about returning to the office.

This week, I sat in a large meeting room with 15 other people and some others joining virtually on Zoom displayed on a large screen at the end of the room. At one point, the person next to me was talking, then stopped himself and said to the person the other side of him, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to turn my back on you while I was talking, but I’ve just gotten so used to staring at a Zoom screen when I talk that I’ve forgotten how to have an in-person conversation.” We all laughed, but a slightly awkward and sympathetic laugh. We knew what he meant. Humans are social creatures. It’s not a good thing to get that out of practice talking to each other in person. And there are huge benefits to being together in one room, at least for certain kinds of meetings and at least sometimes. It’s much easier to work together virtually once we’ve built the kind of rapport that happens when we share the same space and then dinner and drinks. I’ve participated in brainstorming meetings over Zoom, I’ve even run a few. With creative uses of whiteboarding tools and breakout rooms, they’re certainly possible. But you’d be hardpressed to find someone who thinks they’re as productive and fun as in-person sessions.

My company seems to be finding a similar middle ground that many companies are: you don’t have to come to the office every day but we’ll do team meetings and collaboration sessions in person. If this hybrid working style does become the norm for many people and businesses, there should be an opportunity to rethink office spaces. To begin with, companies don’t need nearly as much space. And rather than lots of offices and cubicles, there need to be more and better collaborative workspaces. If we’re going to justify the time and expenses of getting together in person, we want those meetings to be as creative and productive as possible.

Over the years, I’ve held meetings in some great spaces that make innovative use of technology and rolling whiteboards. Could we use technology so that anyone not able to make it in-person can still collaborate? “We’re looking at tools like virtual portals that allow remote participants to feel like they’re there in the room, privy to the interactions and side conversations that you’d experience if you were there in person”. Will VR headsets mean that no one has to be there in person but that we still reap the same benefits as if people were all in the same room? Can digital whiteboards allow virtual participants to pick up a “marker” and participate as easily as people sitting in the room?

The technology that enables virtual meetings was good enough and robust enough that we managed to get through the last two years of a global pandemic with impressively little disruption to the effectiveness of most companies and even government agencies. As life starts to get back to something like normal, we don’t necessarily need, or want, for everything to just revert back to how it was in February 2020. The pandemic was a huge disruption. But disruptions can also be a time of great innovation. Reimaging the office experience of the future seems to be an opportunity companies and workers should embrace.