The Future Office is Not About Place
Returning to the office continues to dominate the headlines, boardrooms, and executive conference rooms. (I’ve also written about this, here and here.) The new ways of working and interacting that we adopted out of necessity during the pandemic have demonstrated staff resilience, created new opportunities, and exposed cracks in organizational foundations. (See related article, here.) As of this writing, CEOs have not yet figured it all out. Numerous surveys say flexibility will define workplaces like never before. The traditional office has meant centralized spaces housing the vast majority of employees with assigned desks and set office hours. Now, hybrid is top of mind.
What does “hybrid” really mean?
Few companies seem to have clearly defined what “hybrid” really means. When pressed further, leaders share varied descriptions of the physical workplace. For example:
Virtual – No physical or centralized office space. All staff work remotely, all of the time.
Hoteling – Central office spaces where employees reserve a desk at nearby office locations, as needed.
Split Work – Central office spaces where employees are expected to work onsite for ~2-3 days/week and remotely for the rest.
Concierge Space – Shared office and meeting spaces that can be reserved or subscribed for varied time periods and locations (similar to what’s been offered by the likes of Regus, WeWork, and Intelligent Office.)
Adopting one of these may represent a dramatic departure from past practices for some businesses. Yet, these aren’t new options. Furthermore, conversations dealing solely with physical space miss the boat.
Real change for the office requires rethinking work.
When the world went virtual last year, work was no longer defined (or constrained) by a place. We figured out how to get things done without the benefit of direct connection. We learned to embrace flexibility. We focused on what was most important to get it done. Conversely, we also discovered that we value being together physically, not just via technology. We missed both formal and casual interactions. For many, this same time and space connection cultivates a sense of community. It makes a difference in what we achieve and the quality of our thinking. Count these among the lessons learned that fuel the “hybrid” conversation. Yet, going forward, real change for the office requires rethinking work.
Consider the critical work outcomes you need.
A focus on outcomes was the common denominator among my clients who quickly got up and running virtually. This is also the practice they most want to retain. Focusing on outcomes and performance, rather than on overseeing workflows and observing activity, encourages personal accountability and often, streamlines work. It connects what’s being done to what’s being achieved (or not).
As CEOs and executive teams weigh options for their work places, consider the critical work outcomes you need. Then place those answers in the context of your thinking about space and place. For example:
What is the outcome you want to achieve?
What activities are most critical for success in achieving the outcomes?
What decisions will you need, from whom, by when?
How will you ensure decisions-makers have the information they need at the right times?
In what ways can technology enable efficient work flows and make it easier to monitor progress?
Which activities or decisions are better done by people in the same place?
Where does proximity matter most and how often is proximity – or shared workspaces – needed?
Leaders who guide their teams to focus on outcomes also reinforce larger, strategic objectives. Done well, individuals at all levels of the organization can see how they contribute to success. It makes it easier to align their work and choose the tactical activities that have the greatest potential for impact. “Hybrid” work or not, the future office is unlikely to be about place. CEOs who rethink work – and focus on outcomes – may find it easier to capture the value of both remote and in-person work.