An Open Letter to Leaders

Don’t go back to the office, writes Dr. Agustin Chevez.

Dear Manager,

It’s time for us to have an open conversation about our shared passion: helping organisations create value through work. As a workplace architect and researcher, I approach this by studying the evolving nature of work and the best environments to host it. It’s from this perspective that I recommend that you don’t go back to the office.

Here is why.

The office is a human invention born of circumstances vastly different from what work is today and the way we work. Let’s be grateful to the office for hosting work for as long as it has, and honour it by not pushing it beyond its limits.

The office needs more than a fresh coat of paint or a new name, the future of work needs a variety of environments with new inner workings.

Many things about the office need to change, including how we commercialise it, design it, and measure its success. I have handpicked two important factors where you have a pivotal role in creating the new workplace.

1.    Collaboration: “Collaboration” has become an umbrella term for all forms of interactions, the bastion of innovation, and the scapegoat of return to the office mandates.

In the evolving workplace, we must develop a more nuanced understanding of how people interact with each other and to what ends. Cooperation, coordination, and other modes of interaction are important to how we work. Each serve a different purpose and follow their own hierarchical and trust models that benefit from different physical and virtual environments.

Also integral in the development of new workplaces is to differentiate collaboration from socialisation – the innate human need to connect and engage with others to form relationships, learn, and develop a sense of belonging. Socialisation must be recognised and given individual attention separate from “collaboration”.

And if true that being together, interacting, and socialising are all important, so too is being apart. Intermittent isolation can promote innovation and help organisations tackle complex problems.

We need to find a balance between being together and apart, ensuring that each situation is matched with the appropriate environment.

2.    Experience design: The desire to create human experiences is as ancient as the earliest human impulse to develop rituals and ceremonies. Thus, experience design in the new workplace will carry on, but with a difference.

Experience design has come to mean ‘activation’ or a revitalisation of a dormant space that may have lost its purpose and is in need of external incentives to regain vitality.  

Experience must be more than employee bribes. Free food is not enough to bring people back to the office.

Experiences in the workplace need to be anchored back to how employees perform their tasks (division of labour) and how these tasks are then reintegrated (integration of effort) to meet the strategic objectives of the organisation.

In the new workplace, interactions, and experiences need to align with how the organisation itself is designed to fulfill its purpose in accordance with its values.
 

Beyond hybrid: The emerging workplace

The pandemic made us stop and think about where we work. Employees no longer walk mindlessly into the office.

The so-called ‘largest working from home experiment’ taught us important lessons about the places we work. It has also highlighted, paradoxically, that work is not as boundless as the “work anywhere, anytime” motto (mis)led us to believe. We actually work “somewhere, sometime” – even if it’s not at the office from 9am to 5pm. Work is bounded by space and time, and their qualities matter to us, our teams, the organisation, and the clients we serve.

Hybrid has been a useful stepping stone but has concentrated our efforts in finding the sweet spot of number of days spent working from home versus the office. We risk missing the opportunity to shape better places of work. The evolving workplace should not be rebuilt around tying work back to the office.

The new workplace should arise from a thoughtful consideration of the nature of work, coupled with the qualities of space and time; supporting why people work, how they do it, and the reasons they need to be together (or apart), synchronously or asynchronously.

Dear Manager, please don’t mandate your employees to go back to the office. Start a dialogue about the nature and value of work to be done. Remember that before the pandemic we were discussing ‘presenteeism’ – when employees showed up at the office but were not engaged nor productive. They were there because they felt pressured to be seen by management.

Let’s not go back to the office. Let’s reshape our thinking, and together, create environments that shape better futures.

Sincerely,

Dr. Agustin Chevez
Workplace Futures Research Lead, Centre for the New Workforce, Swinburne University Honorary Fellow at the School of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne.  

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