There was a time, when open-plan seating was promoted as a cool new way to work. Getting rid of cubicles and private offices would create new opportunities for impromptu collaboration and a more general sense of connection between teams.
Ignoring the fact that at least one study has raised doubts over these claims, the drive for open plan offices was, in reality, about bringing down office costs. If you can get the same number of people in a smaller space it can have a meaningful impact on EBITDA.
We’re now living through the next phase of this same trend. Open-plan working has become remote working, and the buzz around collaboration and togetherness has been replaced with flexibility and autonomy.
This trend was on the rise prior to the pandemic. Hot-desking, as enabled by a remote desktop solution, allowed companies to factor illness and holiday into their floorspace calculations, and as a bi-product of this, staff became remote workers in their own office. The shift to cloud software, and the reduction in cost of video conferencing, drove this trend further still. If hot-desking meant you could house the same number of people with ~80% of the floorspace, what if you mandated that everyone had to work at home two days a week?
Selling this vision would be straightforward. Staff with children or other caring responsibilities were already working from home from time to time, so remote work would formalise an already existing policy and extend it to those who didn’t have children. Managers needn’t worry either, in a world of OKRs and other human performance metrics monitoring staff output should be relatively easy. Team members would value the trust that was being put in them, and appreciate the autonomy remote work would bring.
If you think all the benefits listed above sound pretty good, you’re right, they are. The trick is that they are the benefits of flexible working, not remote working. The benefit of remote working (as applied to a team who are used to sharing a physical space) is reducing cost – nothing else.
Open-plan offices may well have been a step in the wrong direction, but at least the impact of them can be mitigated through the creation of quiet or private spaces that members of your team can be encouraged to use. And, what’s more, at least everyone was still together. Bringing people together is one of the great things about being part of a company, and while it is possible to replicate some of this digitally, we have yet to reach a point where the entire spectrum of the human experience can be reproduced in this way. Remote work as a way to reduce costs will only serve to weaken the bonds between existing teams.
Remote First Companies
It’s worth pointing out that I am principally concerned with the movement of businesses from a position of shared physical spaces to being largely remote. However if you are remote first; if you hire effectively for the skills needed to work remotely, and give you team the tools/strategies needed to build a shared culture while working remotely, I can see many benefits of organising a company in this way. Crucially, the people who apply for roles at your company will be aware of what they are signing up for. I may have a preference for the alternative model, but there is no right or wrong answer here.
The coronavirus is providing companies with fantastic cover to drive through changes to working practices in search of cost savings. Not only are we forced to give remote working a try, but there is also a real need for companies to protect their balance sheets. So, if landlords are willing to negotiate space reductions, not having a desk to come back to is an acceptable outcome if it means you keep your job, right?
You may love remote working and want more opportunities to do it in the future. You may absolutely hate it and be clamouring to get back to your office. There is a good chance neither of those things will impact the outcome.
Companies should be aware that moving their organisation from a shared physical space to being largely remote will damage the relationships between people and teams. The bonds that were formed through physical proximity to one another will weaken over time, even if they are imperceptible at first.
Companies should be aware of confirmation bias amongst leadership teams as well. They’ll convince themselves that output remained decent (given the circumstances) and that coronavirus has shown us that we can work effectively while remote. But the truth is they won’t know. There won’t have been enough time to effectively collect and analyse the data, but there will be an incentive to move quickly. The cost savings will be made, and reversing them will be near impossible.
Flexible Work, Not Remote Work
I’m of the view that companies need offices; that everyone who works at a company should have a permanent desk that they can make their own, complete with pictures, books, little trinkets and alike. Similarly, everyone should have the ability to work flexibly when they wish, allowing them to pick up their kids, wait for a delivery, go to the dentist, or to just get out of the office should they need a change of scenery.
This plan will not help you cut costs, but it will create a better environment to work. And in a world where reported loneliness is on the rise, it will also help defend one of the few remaining spaces where we are encouraged share real experiences with others.