Why do we have physical offices?

Seems an odd question when for over a hundred years this has been the default option, we have never questioned it and often the benefits have seemed so obvious it is rare when they are articulated. But are the benefits clear and are the benefits restricted to a physical office or are there other ways we can achieve the same outcomes?

The benefits

For most people the benefits of offices are universal truths, we accept them unquestioningly. We have seen the benefits first hand and understand them. No one questions the value of proximity to co-workers and many/most leaders have “open door” policies to benefit from that proximity to their employees and the valuable interactions it enables.

If we chose to build a physical office what would we expect?

I asked people to describe why we had a physical office, the responses below sum up the majority of the responses.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

At what cost

The benefits of a physical office are significant. So much so that we accept the considerable costs as a necessary expense to achieve the outcomes desired.

  • Office buildings are expensive, rent, bills, furniture, support staff, maintenance
  • Time, commuting takes hours for each employee everyday
  • Money, commuting is expensive, parking, food, clothing
  • Geographical limitations to hiring
  • Geographical limitations to growth
  • Flexibility – work is usually relatively inflexible
  • Meeting space is often limited by physical space
  • Growth is limited by physical space
  • Work-life balance.

But how do we maintain all or most of the benefits when remote?

What I have found odd is that since going remote many people have accepted that they have ‘lost‘ all of the benefits of a physical office. They have adopted a stance of mitigation of the loss, often abandoning practices that made them successful. I would like us to take a deep breath and look at the benefits and ask ourselves “can we achieve the same outcomes in this new environment?”. The benefits still hold true, let’s not just accept them as unattainable and look for ways of reaching the same outcomes.

Co-located Teams

I see some underlying themes in the benefits, many relate to the productivity benefits of co-located teams. In software delivery at least it is acknowledged that co-located teams are significantly more productive. The speed of feedback looks is a critical factor in building complex and often ambiguous situations. There is rarely one solution to a software problem and the ability to discuss and pivot quickly is crucial. This benefits significantly from real-time interactions and fast response times getting answers to questions quickly increases productivity.

  • Teams are more productive when able to interact in real-time
  • Teams are more productive when they are close to each other
  • Reduced feedback loops, people you need are right there
  • Team rooms enable teams to be more effective as those needed are all together

Collaboration and co-location of teams is a crucial aspect of an Agile mindset, I believe we should be focusing on tools and processes that enable ongoing interactions and collaboration. We have too long focused on planned video conferences with set start and end times. That is not how most of us are used to working, we want ad-hoc and ongoing interactions with our teams. We want to feel co-located and able to freely interact and communicate with them. This is a significant gap in the market for online collaboration tools.

It is also evident that the current trend is to focus on asynchronous work and flexibility for employees. Companies leading the way with this have a heavy emphasis on 100% flexibility and asynchronous work. All work communication must be in writing and have the expectation of a delayed response. The goal being working around the clock and extreme flexibility for employees.

However, the cracks in this policy are already beginning to show. Flexibility is alluring in the short-term (not to mention the west coast salaries) but the lack of human interactions becomes a strain very quickly and they are modifying their model to include scheduled non-work interactions with colleagues to offset the lack of engagement and need for human interaction. This is hard to make work as it feels forced and artificial unlike ad-hoc natural interactions that occur when you are working in close proximity with each other. I personally favor a highly flexible work environment that balances large amounts of online co-location and collaboration. Our teams have similar working hours with a target of a number of overlapping hours each day where they work in the same virtual spaces having natural interactions. This works much better and is building relationships in a natural manner rather than forcing it.

Sense of community

Engagement is very difficult to measure but is a significant factor in the success of a business, many businesses put a great deal of effort in to their culture and identity and in the desire to have their employees feel they are part of something. To build relationships with co-workers and leadership. We have discovered that the better those relationships are the more successful the business will be.

  • A single location where all work colleagues can come together
  • We value casual interactions with co-workers
  • Creates a sense of community
  • Accessibility to leadership
  • Shared information – Build information Kanban, Working agreements
  • Visibility and Accountability of employees
  • Meeting rooms enable people from different teams to interact with each other

Results from a Gallup survey of US employees showed that more than half of respondents who said they had a work best friend also reported feeling passionate about their job, with a strong connection to their company. Only 10% of people who didn’t have a close friend at work could say the same.

There are numerous studies on this topic and the conclusion is generally that friendships and relationships at work have a direct correlation to productivity, engagement and turnover.
The sense of connectivity to your peers has a strong correlation with mental and physical health as well as productivity.

In my opinion this aspect of work-life has been grossly under appreciated in the transition to remote working. The focus has been on flexibility rather than engagement. I believe this is short-sighted and that in the long run putting effort into encouraging and enabling employee interactions will be far more beneficial than flexibility.

Presence for Customers and Candidates

A physical location provides a destination and a statement to potential customers and employees. It allows visibility of how the business operates. It allows a more significant connection for people.

  • Location for Sales meetings/meetings with clients
  • Ability to show working arrangements to potential customers|
  • Enhanced recruitment experience
  • Proximity to clients

This is perhaps the hardest to see an obvious remote alternative too. Obviously a significant internet presence is essential these days but most sales is about building relationships and establishing trust. This is so much slower and harder from a remote setting. However, it does open opportunities for co-working where companies are able to collaborate together and to see the teams working in real time.

Summary

Having created and managed a remote office for the last two year it has become evident to me that for us to achieve the same outcomes from a remote office as we have in a physical office we need to ask why we do things the way we do. We should seek the appropriate outcomes. In my opinion success in the transition to a remote office is built on four pillars.

  1. The ability for spontaneous interactions. Absolutely minimal barriers to ad-hoc conversations and interactions with your co-workers. And when I say minimal I mean minimal, every click, every text message, every potential second lost is a barrier and impedes the flow of communication and hurts productivity.
  2. A sense of situational awareness. Knowing who in your team is online and available, who is offline where people are and who they are currently interacting with is crucial to enabling the spontaneous interactions and creating the feeling you are part of an energized team.
  3. A sense of proximity or community. Feeling close to your team, the ability to casually interact with them and closely collaborate helps build relationships and creates a sense of engagement. This leads to higher productivity, lower turnover and better mental and physical health.
  4. Finally the ability to interact in small groups, the one constraint that being remote does create is the ability to participate effectively in discussions, multiple small groups is more effective than large groups even in physical offices but being remote this is magnified.

It is my belief that an effective long-term remote office strategy should be built on these pillars. It offers a great balance of flexibility with collaboration and interactions. It is great for both employee and employer. I’d like to see more tools supporting this way of working and more businesses acknowledging the need for interactions.

6 thoughts on “Why do we have physical offices?

  1. Great article and I totally agree with the points you’ve made. Do you have a list of virtual office solutions that you have tried/work well? We are currently looking for some alternatives to our current virtual office and would love to get some more, in depth, insight on this.

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    1. Hi Amanda, we are still primarily using Sococo and TeamViewer. We have guidance of teams hanging out together in a single room when working solo to get the benefit of chatting and socializing with co-workers. But mainly it is encouraging a mindset of collaboration rather than solo working

      Like

  2. Great article and I totally agree with the points you’ve made. Do you have a list of virtual office solutions that you have tried/work well? We are currently looking for some alternatives to our current virtual office and would love to get some more, in depth, insight on this.

    Like

  3. Thank you: another thought-provoking post. Helpful conclusion.

    One point I don’t entirely agree with: when you say that people have adopted a stance of mitigation of the loss, in my experience mindsets have been more mixed than that. Some have adopted that stance: others, the opposite.

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    1. I’d love to see articles with the mixed viewpoint, the BBC in particular seem to be pushing an all asynchronous agenda. All their articles seem to start with that as a premise. It would be great to see a more varied approach. My personal view is that remote working can be a spectrum of options to suit all preferences.

      Like

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