While this article is about working in an office setting versus a remote work environment, I am starting it with a story from my father. The 1960s were known for their hard partying, when a DUI was no a badge of shame and unlikely to get you fired, when many social norms were in the midst of dramatic change. Cocktail parties were very popular then, the alcohol flowed and entertainment too many forms including games. One game in particular that I remember from the stories involved asking someone to lie down on the floor. They were then covered from toes to chin with a blanket and instructed to take off what they didn’t need. Of course, this was a later-in-the-evening game, when thought was clouded due to the gin, whiskey and vodka consumed, and everyone would giggle as watches, bracelets, socks and shoes would appear from under the blanket. But the point of the game was that the one thing none of them needed was the blanket.
I’ve shared this story because I’ve often thought back to it as my workforce has transitioned successfully to a remote work environment and our lovely office, that once was bursting with ideas, became expensive storage space.
I was advised by a wise man back in April to shed the space. I had considered it since then, but at that point was concerned that an abrupt decision so early into COVID-19 might signal the wrong message to my employees. So I waited, figuring that the right time would appear.
My landlord was great. She offered me, without asking, two months of half priced rent, after I shared the news of conference and job cancellations. That bought some time. Then, in June, I started the open discussion with my team regarding a return to the office. We had adapted well to a remote work environment. Progress was being made, we had adopted a schedule of meetings that met our needs, we met socially on a weekly basis to fill in that part that makes working fun—knowing your co-workers. We saw kids on Zoom, we heard dogs and occasionally watched cats parade across laptops. We shared stories, plans for staycations, and reminisced about past vacation experiences that we longed for again. And we shared funny videos and other things we had received over the web that week.
My team let me know that they were not comfortable working in close quarters, even if we required masks, stayed six feet apart and had all the extras for sanitization. They did not want to return to that environment until we were safe—which mean an effective vaccine was available and distributed.
Coincidentally, the Harvard Business Review in July posted a seven-part series titled The New Reality of WFH1 (Working From Home). This series provided data into what other organizations are seeing which bolstered my decision to say goodbye to our office.
Microsoft2, using software tools, found employees adapted to remote work well. 22% increase in meetings under 30 minutes and 11% decrease in longer meetings were seen. While they found employees adapted well, their management teams bore the brunt of dealing with the stress of the change, fostering resilience in their employees and staying connected.
Nancy Rothbard’s article3 highlighted that while the transition to remote work was facilitated by technology, the challenge has been managing work-life boundaries. She defines “integrators” as workers who were comfortable blurring work-family boundaries and “segmentors” who established clear boundaries between work and family. Her research addressed the challenges for integrators who now needed to establish clearer boundaries in the remote work environment, and segmentors whose boundaries are under constant challenge in a WFH environment. She suggests that segmentors dress for work and establish a workspace with a door. She also suggests that managers be accepting of an integrator’s need to address family needs during worktime.
Gretchen Gavett’s4 article lets us know that WFJ has been growing for years among knowledge workers. This is supported by Derek Thompson’s work5 where he references the Federal Reserve finding that that WFH tripled in the last 15 years.
There were other articles that addressed the benefit of office space.
Gianpiero Getriglieri6 identifies that an office imposes routine and provides a boundary between work and home life that technology has been eroding.
Scott Berinato’s article7 talks about the paradigm shift of office space, where the future office will incorporate physical space as well as technology space. The change of office space definition is lagging due to the timeline of leases but will catch up in the coming year or two.
These viewpoints have given me confidence in our decision to vacate our office. Our current lease was coming up for renewal, and rather than letting it roll into another year, we gave our notice to leave. The past two weeks has been spent pouring over the documentation amassed over the past 5 years to determine what should be kept as we downsize into our own individual spaces. As we watched donated items leave to their new owners, and the dumpster fill with documentation from the start of the first idea through to all of our copyrighted intellectual property, I didn’t have feelings of sadness. It felt incredibly good to ‘lighten up’. My young company will be stronger for this. We have shed the “how we did it before” for our new way of work.
We will again embrace space, but it will likely be temporary space, or use of shared space. We have yet to address how to add staff in a remote work environment, and that may force some change, but until then, we are pivoting and growing, and it is a new world for us.
I have taken off the blanket.
1The New Reality of WFH.Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/big-ideas
2Singer-Velush, N., Sherman, K., Anderson, E. 2020. Microsoft Analyzed Data on Its Newly Remote Workforce. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/microsoft-analyzed-data-on-its-newly-remote-workforce
3Rothbard, N. 2020. Building Work-Life Boundaries in the WFH Era. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/building-work-life-boundaries-in-the-wfh-era
4Gavett, G. 2020. Do We Really Need the Office? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/cover-story/2020/07/do-we-really-need-the-office
5Thompson, D. 2020. The Coronavirus Is Creating a Huge, Stressful Experiment in Working From Home. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-creating-huge-stressful-experiment-working-home/607945/
6Petriglieri, G. 2020. In Praise Of The Office. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/in-praise-of-the-office
7Berinato, S. 2020. What Is An Office For? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2020/07/what-is-an-office-for