Matrix Management / People and purpose / Virtual Teams

What’s so great about the office anyway?

There is still a lot of debate about the “return to the office”, and surveys (suspiciously often sponsored by real estate companies or others with a vested interest in getting people back to physical premises) saying that “senior managers” want people back in the office – reasons include concerns about creating connections, productivity and innovation.

But these were all concerns even when most people were office based. We need to compare a remote or hybrid situation with the reality of office life, not some hypothetical idealized office past.

Let’s think about the three common concerns above in turn

  1. Was the office really so good for connection. The work of Thomas Allen at MIT showed that communication between engineers fell off rapidly once they were a few meters apart. Remember how hard it is in the office to get people from different floors of a building or buildings on the same site to mix and meet each other. In reality people tended to socialise and take their breaks with people they already knew. In both office and remote working we need a reason to communicate and collaborate, not just the accident of having nearby desks.
  2. Productivity is a classic diversion, see our earlier blog on this here. Few organizations ever measured knowledge worker productivity so they will never know if remote working is better or not, though individuals do consistently self-report being more productive when working remotely. It seems unlikely that individual productivity is higher in a busy office and collective productivity is notoriously difficult to measure.
  3. Was creativity better in the office? It was always a concern before COVID and it is hard to measure creativity, but did your best ideas ever come in a meeting or in the office? Remote working gives us the opportunity to engage higher levels of diversity in innovation (not just those who are able and willing to commute to the same location) and individuals generate more ideas working individually than in groups (contrary to our stubborn belief in collective “brainstorming”).

So, let’s be realistic about the office as a baseline to compare with remote and hybrid working. Let’s look objectively at the comparisons and parse out the relative advantages. By consciously choosing what to do when we are together and apart, we can get the best from the different modes of working.

By forcing people back to the office when it adds little value and undermines our ability to attract talent we are serving nobody

You can see how we do this in our programs on innovation and other topics here.

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