By David Seinker, CEO and founder of The Business Exchange
In the early days of lockdown, there were a lot of confident predictions that we were witnessing the beginning of a remote work revolution. As the weeks have dragged on, however, such fancies have quickly proven to be an illusion.
Jaded by trying to fit a workday around homeschooling children, spending too much time with their spouses, and (in some cases) crushing loneliness, many workers are desperate to get back to the office. In fact, a recent survey found that 86% of South African office workers are ready to return to their places of work. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reports that companies are finding that fully remote workforces mean that projects take longer, collaboration is harder, and that training new workers is a struggle.
But how to balance that need for structure with the flexibility a post-pandemic world demands? The key lies in reimagining the office in a way that suits both companies and employees.
Why remote isn’t working
It is, of course, tempting to say that the reason companies are struggling with remote work is because of the pandemic. After all, no one can pretend that being confined at home while trying to maintain a relationship with their romantic partner and homeschool their children on the side is simple. Different, but equally stressed out are the younger employees who’ve had to turn their house-share bedrooms into offices, or been forced to spend all day with housemates they might’ve only seen occasionally. As an oft-repeated meme from the past few months points out, we’re not so much working from home as living at work.
Without the usual perks of remote work, such as being able to decamp to a coffee shop from time to time, have in-person meetings, or hook up with friends early on a Friday afternoon, remote work quickly starts to lose its shine.
But there’s more to it than that. In order for remote work to be effective, a company has to be willing to commit to it entirely. Moreover, it has to be sure that its employees are capable of working remotely. That’s why companies that are remote from the start often fare better than those that adopt it as a policy later on.
People who’ve spent their whole careers in an office are simply likely to feel more comfortable in a properly structured work environment.
The benefits of the office
It’s also worth bearing in mind that offices come with benefits of their own, outside of providing somewhere to work. For many people, interacting with colleagues can act as a spark for collaboration and help foster innovation.
That serendipity is one of the main reasons why then Yahoo CEO Marrisa Mayer banned employees from working remotely in 2013. While there was considerable push-back from staff, the reasoning was at least sound. It’s also easier to call an all-hands meeting during an emergency when all hands are, as it were, on-deck.
That’s not to say that the traditional office isn’t without its pitfalls. Among the reasons most frequently cited for wanting to go remote are constant interruptions and an inability to do so-called “deep work”.
A different future
Many of those pitfalls can be avoided with a different approach to the office. The traditional method of searching for office real estate, signing long-term leases, and trying to make it work as the organisation grows and shrinks simply isn’t tenable any longer.
Instead, organisations should turn to office solutions that can adapt to their needs, no matter what phase of growth they’re in, and which have a deep understanding of what makes for a good, professional office environment. Such a solution also allows companies to easily bring employees into the office when it’s useful, while allowing them to deep work at home without wasting money on empty desks.
This kind of flexibility also produces savings, which can help companies build resilience against any future economic shocks.