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The office is not dead. Here’s why

The CEO of Workhuman argues that the critical need for human connection will guide the reinvention of the workplace.

The office is not dead. Here’s why
[Photo: Sirichai Saengcharnchai/iStock]
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Lately we’ve seen lots of obituaries for the office. The pandemic caused a massive shift to work from home (WFH) among knowledge and service workers. Teams are using communication apps like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams to stay productive. Even though employees are working more hours, people like having more control over their work schedules. They benefit from less commuting, even as the boundaries are blurring between work and home.

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I believe reports of the office’s demise are premature for several reasons, but they all reflect the critical human need for connection. Last spring, a large number of Silicon Valley executives made very public statements indicating their changed minds on the need for an in-person workplace: “We’re working so well from home that we might never go back to the office.”

Didn’t they realize that the reason they could transition to 100% virtual teams overnight was that they had spent years building a shared experience among employees? It was the power of proximity that enabled employees to make the switch. Those companies had invested in their cultures, which carried them through.

After almost a year of remote working, we’re seeing a slow decay of connection. According to Gallup, remote employees are 7% less likely to see their connection to the mission of a company. Staring at a laptop screen with six other faces is inherently transactional, less spontaneous, and less human than working in an actual room with actual people.

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In response, leaders are stepping up their efforts to celebrate humanity at work, casting a spotlight on moments when employees go beyond their job descriptions to help customers, improve products or share new ideas. They are reminding employees that we’re in a stressful time and it’s okay to take care of themselves and each other. They are using all-hands virtual meetings and recognition platforms to share some of their own vulnerability and gratitude for the sacrifices and resilience of employees.

In a recent virtual event held by the Washington Post, Wharton School professor Adam Grant observed that virtual work has “benefits for productivity . . . [but] the big risks are collaboration and culture.” As we return to a new office setup, how can we maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks?

The new workplace will be dedicated to interaction

Speaking at the same event, Susan Lund, PhD, a leader of the McKinsey Global Institute, believes the return to offices will be about interaction. She said, “you’ll go into [the office] to meet with other people doing brainstorming and innovation, with more collaborative spaces, team rooms and maybe individual phone booths for [private] conversations.”

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Architects, designers, technologists, and business leaders are putting forward an array of hybrid work arrangements, combining the best parts of WFH and face-to-face collaboration. There will be no shortage of new options. The question is, how can we make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime disruption?

Transition to a human workplace

A recent BCG study on remote work stated, “employees satisfied with social connectivity are more likely to maintain or improve productivity on collaborative tasks.” In short, strong work collaboration requires strong human connections. And that’s the key to rethinking the office for your organization. As a change management process, the 2021 transition to the “next normal” is an incredible opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to more than employees’ physical safety.

Returning to the office can reinvigorate your culture

Every aspect of a hybrid office arrangement can contribute to greater human connection among people in a workforce blend of on-site, remote, full-time, and contract and gig workers. As a start, consider how each of these factors can strengthen ties among employees.

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Physical space: You’ll be redesigning desks, collaboration spaces, safe conference rooms, and amenities (people will use the coffee station and the gym, but differently). Enlist employees in the redesign process, because they took a graduate-level course in collaboration last year.

Technology: Forge a new kind of partnership between business functions, HR, and tech teams so personal and collaboration technology are deployed in service to people as much as productivity.

Culture: Celebrate the human qualities that got you through the pandemic. It’s great to celebrate performance but we need to celebrate what connects us: kindness, dedication, integrity, resilience, collaboration, courage, and even love. Pause to appreciate one another, to show gratitude, to recognize moments that people were creative, adaptable, resilient, and selfless. Give everyone in the organization the tools they need to show gratitude to each other and truly live the cultural values of the company.

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Data: Deploy data capabilities that measure how people are doing as well as what they are doing. At Workhuman, the language in our recognition data—generated from more than 50 million moments of recognition and gratitude among 5 million employees—can reveal unconscious bias which alerts people leaders that there are perhaps previously unseen inequities that can be addressed now. AI and advanced analytics are now capable of discovering so much. Keep experimenting and keep measuring the result in both business terms and human terms because today, they are inseparable.

Right now, there are too many unknowns (in public health, in the economy) to determine exactly when we will return to shared workplaces, but the advantages of human connection at work are so profound that a return to the office in some new, creative form is inevitable. According to Grant: “2020 was the year of forced rethinking . . . my aspiration for 2021 is that it’s a year of proactive thinking about where we work and how we work.”

Obituaries for the office are premature. Let’s use what we’ve learned in 2020 to reinvent both our workplaces and our work cultures in 2021.

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Eric Mosley is the CEO and cofounder of what began as Globoforce and is now Workhuman.