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Why we all should return to our cubicles.
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The last thing before last weekend, my colleague Isak posted this article on our shared Slack channel. ”Google's Ex-HR Chief Says Hybrid Work Won't Last” sure makes a great headline, but as always there is more nuance in the article than in the headline.
This is not the first time Laszlo Bock has talked about how remote or hybrid work will not work. He has spoken out about it in the past, and it's pretty obvious that he likes the office.
As someone who is on the other end of the spectrum and a strong proponent of remote/hybrid work, the article naturally made my heart skip a beat and my instinct was to write an article outlining all the reasons why the article is wrong. But then I watched a clip with John Cleese.
Cleese makes a (funny) comment about how we should never be sure. And that got me thinking. How about instead of my usual article talking positively about the future of remote work, I do the opposite? What if I explore why the office will continue to exist and point out all the benefits of being in the office five days a week?
Put yourself in someone else's shoes and so on.
If you like Maslow's way of describing the world, you probably also know that belonging is one of the essential needs we have as humans. And whether you like Maslow or not, belonging is deeply ingrained in us. Scientists have found that this is a universal trait. We all want to belong, no matter where in the world we live or what our societies look like.
I believe this is why so many of us enjoy working in the office. It naturally creates a sense of belonging. Its walls and entrances create a natural boundary from the rest of the world. You either have access to this place or you do not. Either you belong or you do not.
It is effortless.
There are not many studies on how remote work has affected our sense of belonging in the workplace after COVID, but some of the pre-pandemic studies on remote workers (or teleworkers as some studies call them) suggest that remote work may be affecting our social relationships.
This is also indicated by perhaps the most important and recent study, conducted at Microsoft from December 2019 to June 2020, where researchers analyzed employee communication patterns.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that remote work affects how you form new social relationships with people at work. According to the data, you used your old relationships and built fewer new ones. Even though I am supposed to be positive about the office here, I can not help but point out that the data collected was collected in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. We went into immense turmoil, and the researchers pointed that out as well. All the data points went down, but as we found ourselves in this new reality, many of them began to shift back up.
Of course, when you are in an office, it's easier to meet people - at the coffee machine, waiting for the elevator, or at the microwave waiting for yesterday's leftovers to heat up. We may not be particularly productive in these micro-interactions, but we make connections that allow us to work more easily together later.
Researchers point out that:
Two people connected by a strong tie can often transfer information more easily (as they are more likely to share a common perspective), to trust one another, to cooperate with one another, and to expend effort to ensure that recently transferred knowledge is well understood and can be utilized.
These connections come not only from shared work, but also from everyday interactions like those described above. But does not an email or chat create the same feeling? In their opinion, no.
For example, previous research has shown that establishing a rapport, which is an important precursor to knowledge transfer, is impeded by email use, and that in-person and phone/video communication are more strongly associated with positive team performance than email and instant message (IM) communication.
Offices may not automatically create these bonds or relationships between people, but it is undoubtedly a more effortless endeavor than trying to do so at home or elsewhere.
I think the keyword here is effortless. A lot of things happen in an office that requires less effort than when we do it remotely. At least that's our perception.
Bock also points out that this is one of the reasons he believes people will eventually return to the office. Managers *want* their employees back because it takes less effort for them to manage employees from the office than it does to manage them remotely.
The office has been under scrutiny in recent years, and perhaps it's time for a revival? According to Laszlo Bock, an unnamed executive told him:
We'll get everyone back into the office eventually. I just don't want to pick that right now.
So the question is, in a market where competition for talent is fierce, is it really up to managers to decide? And should we optimize for leaders and their preferences or for employees? Next week, I'll take that approach.