From the January 8, 2022 edition of The Wall Street Journal
If the primary purpose of an office today is no longer to get actual work done, then perhaps it’s better conceived as a place for connection and community. Do we still need desks and cubicles?
When I talk with senior executives about the ongoing pandemic, I often hear them wistfully yearn for a “return to work.” This choice of words is significant because it highlights how much we associate work with a workplace.
But the pandemic has taught us that many forms of work, especially high-end knowledge work, can be done effectively (or even more effectively) away from the workplace. When confronted with this fact, most executives say that coming to an office at least a few days a week is essential for fostering personal relationships, developing and integrating new employees, generating ideas and building company culture.
What this leaves out is revealing. Since the industrial age, economic efficiency and productivity have required the centralization of the tools of work in a shared location. With the advent of the internet, the cloud, smartphones and affordable laptops, these tools can now be readily decentralized. If the primary purpose of an office today is no longer to get actual work done, then perhaps it’s better conceived, as these executives suggest, as a place for connection and community—as a clubhouse rather than a workplace.
To be sure, our economy relies on many workers—nurses, technicians, child-care providers, retail and restaurant staff, and millions of others—whose jobs cannot easily be done remotely. Not everyone has comfortable space at home for work, and converting the workplace to a clubhouse for some elite workers may exacerbate the inequities that the pandemic has so sharply revealed.
Still, it’s clear that the office-as-a-workplace model no longer matches the needs of many white-collar and knowledge workers. If you walk amid cubicles at an office and find many people at their desks wearing noise-canceling headphones and staring silently into a computer, it’s a sign that a company needs to rethink its expectations. It’s still too attached to the idea of the office as a workplace when most of the work itself could be better done remotely.
In the post-pandemic economy, physical space where workers gather should have a much different feel and purpose. In an office functioning as a clubhouse, few people will be at their desks. Instead, they’ll be talking and mingling—sometimes in meetings but more often in informal conversations that might resemble what we think of as “happy hour.”
I’m not the first to suggest that offices need to change dramatically to reflect the new realities of working from home and an office. Writing in the Harvard Business Review last year, Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks and Mahesh Khan argued that effectively shifting to hybrid work requires redesigning offices. They describe companies devoting more space to couches and shared seating and changing acoustics to encourage an ambient buzz instead of today’s more typical quiet-as-a-library vibe.
Erica Pandey, writing recently in Axios, reported that 60% of companies are redesigning their offices to accommodate the shift to hybrid work, with many eliminating private offices and devoting more space to café-like seating.
In the Atlantic, Derek Thompson distinguished between “hard work” (the heads-down tasks we typically think of as work, which are increasingly best done remotely) and “soft work,” which he describes this way: “Soft work is getting coffee with a co-worker. It’s catching up about the NFL on Monday morning. If networking, schmoozing, gossiping and mildly annoying people on your floor with ‘Hey, does this idea suck?’ are species of behavior, soft work is the genus that contains them.”
As we continue to redefine the purpose of shared space in a hybrid world, calling the office a “clubhouse” can spark a series of thought-provoking questions.
If shared space is primarily for colleagues to socialize, should offices continue to have desks or cubicles that encourage solo work?
If the purpose of bringing employees together is to promote social cohesion, why is this best done between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.? Everyone’s family responsibilities and personal preferences are different. Some teams might prefer meeting for early-morning breakfasts or exercise classes; others in the evening for drinks or team dinners—none of which require a physical office. Companies might use expense account policies to incentivize such get-togethers. For instance, what if a company agreed to reimburse group meals, but only if five or more employees from at least two departments eat together?
If the primary goal for bringing people together is face-to-face interaction, should people be forced to leave electronics in their briefcases? One veteran employee at a company I work with has worked remotely for many years. She visits her company’s headquarters once or twice a month, but she intentionally leaves her laptop at home. “My objective for being in the office is to talk to people, and I don’t want to have a computer that tempts me to do email or work I could do remotely,” she says. Going to the office without access to a computer might seem extreme, but it’s an example of how we can treat the office as a place to socialize, not a place to work.
As hybrid companies seek to improve the ways that employees socialize during limited hours in the office together, there are some industries and firms that already demonstrate best practices. For example, at large consulting firms, many employees have historically traveled to client locations Monday to Thursday and reconvened together in the office on Friday, which naturally becomes a day for reconnection and in-person catching up. During travel days, consultants often share meals during team dinners, which become an essential forum for transmitting company culture and learning from client work.
Another example worth examining is WeWork, the once fast-growing company that builds and leases co-working space. Despite all the noise about WeWork’s charismatic founder and its controversial financial model, in its heyday, the company excelled at creating opportunities for the people who worked in its spaces to socialize, network and collaborate. When I visited WeWork locations, what struck me is how they encouraged people to gather and interact in common spaces—by offering an array of beverages and snacks, a formal lineup of public talks and a less formal slate of fun events, such as game nights and contests. Successful co-working spaces were never just about real estate; creating community and connections was part of the value proposition.
Some percentage of the workforce who can work remotely may choose, for a variety of reasons, to revert to pre-pandemic habits and continue to treat the office as a place to do individual, task-focused work. That’s fine. These questions often come down to personal style and temperament. Though I have grown comfortable working remotely, after recently returning to in-person meetings after many months of Zoom, I am acutely aware of how much more effective I feel in face-to-face interactions. Many of my colleagues, in contrast, have realized that they continue to prefer remote work. We will have to accommodate such individual preferences and embrace them as another dimension of diversity, inclusion and belonging.
As we rethink how we work after so many months away from the office, we should also reconsider how we describe it. The framing effects of language are powerful. The simple word “workplace” conveys more than we might think. In the emerging world of hybrid work, thinking of our shared space as a “clubhouse” may help us to find a new, more satisfying rhythm in our professional lives.
– Written by ByNohria, former dean of Harvard Business School.