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The Post-Pandemic Hybrid Office Should Be Built For The Remote Workforce
In 2012 or so, when I started my company and thus began working totally remotely, I remember being told by an investor that I’d “still have to do meetings in person.” When I asked why, he said that most people required human contact to sign contracts, that they’d need to know you were a “real person” and that was, to him, “the most important thing.” Being able to physically see and I guess shake the hand of that person didn’t really seem to close more deals - I seemed to be able to get people to sign just fine via phone calls and emails, and contracts that had people steadfastly demanding to breathe the same air as me did not seem to be better, or closer, or what have you.
Sure, meeting people in person likely solidified an already good relationship, but it was a rare case where I’d have one of these meetings and the client, by definition, was better. Those that wanted to meet in person usually wanted some sort of presentation, a song and dance of Powerpoints and suits and pointing at things and being ready for “tough questions,” none of which seemed dramatically better face-to-face. As the years went on, the requirement for in-person interaction usually became either a saving throw - salvaging a bad situation by sharing the unpleasant aura of bad stuff in person, which changes nothing but does involve a few hours of commuting - or a pleasantry, a way to put a face to a name.
What is interesting is thinking about how very little of my life actually happened on camera before the pandemic. Because of the assumed possibility of in-person contact, there seemed no need to put on a camera - after all, if we needed to see each other, we would in person - and only through the forced isolation of COVID-19 did we finally start putting digital faces to names, because we knew we couldn’t theoretically meet in person. I think this is an important lens through which to view pre- and post-pandemic life, in that consciously or otherwise we forced ourselves to turn digital meetings into the thing we used in-person meetings for - seeing each other’s weird faces talking - and thus may come out of it with the general idea that seeing each other in person is significantly less necessary.
I feel like I’ve done the whole “office bad” thing to death by now, and the thing I’m thinking about is how in-person meetings are going to function going forward, or more specifically why they’ll exist. I am sure that there’re plenty of industries (big law, for example) that are going to keep their in-person meetings because they’re stodgy and old, but I get the feeling that a lot of people are going to see them as unnecessary because Zoom does most of the things you want them to do. We didn’t meet in person because of the handshake, or the “spontaneity” of it, but because phone calls feel two dimensional and a video conversation feels almost three dimensional, and that’s actually fine, if not a little better.
There’s also significant logistical benefits - the fact that we’re not spending time or money on commuting, that we can cram more into our days, that we can give people more of ourselves because we’re less constrained by physical stuff. It’s also better for those with injuries or disabilities, for whom physically going places is difficult, and indeed those people who may not want to be physically present but can now take part in meetings where most people are. The meetings that we have had for the last year or so are basically the same as those that we would have had we been in person, and have likely ended quicker because when you’re in person you feel obligated to make the visit “worth it,” which is even more symptomatic of a larger inefficient meeting problem.
I’ve gone over the spurious reasons that people want to go back to the office at length, but I do, bizarrely, think that the office actually has a use now, just not in the same way that it previously did. Perhaps we’re years (or decades) away from it being possible, but the ideal use of an office is more of a quasi-social space for work, one that isn’t required but is ultimately a nexus for your workmates to grow closer to each other. It should be a place that you go for an actual reason - a return to the mothership - and should be designed a presentation and organized meeting space versus some desks and a conference room.
This is why I feel like hybrid work is kind of a pipedream if it’s simply some people in person and some people on Zoom. Treating offices in an identical manner to before is going to lead to internal class politics - more “visibility” for the people at the office, or less if their direct report is remote. The only solution is truly committing to a reframing of how the office actually functions, and what it actually stands for - is it a place of work, or a place of some work? If there are jobs that must be done in person, what specifically makes them require that, and what can you do to make sure that their operations aren’t detrimental to other full or partially remote operations?
The answer is likely complex and a case-by-case nightmare, but generally - as bizarre as it sounds - offices should be built to house those that can’t work remote, and basically offer remote pods for them. This means that an ideal in-person office environment would be one that allows you to take Zoom calls, even if it’s with someone else in the office (unless it’s a one-on-one). The reason this sounds ridiculous is that we’re used to going to the office because we were made to, and predominantly believed we had to, and that in-person was “superior” to remote and digital because it was what we were used to.
If the office is something that is provided to make work get done better, and you want to have a “hybrid” environment, you have to commit to your business being digital, which means that your office needs to provide a better remote setup than the person can have at home. Alternatively, the person can use their own remote setup - but the office, in a new reimagining of how these things should work, should be somewhere that gives you more than being at home, which it does not currently do. It will require people to fight the cognitive dissonance as to why we go into an office - we say “to do work” but we mean “be around our workmates and go to in-person meetings” - and have executives and managers that are aligned on what the actual goals of a company are.
The In-Person Remote Office
This is going to be a huge struggle because it flips the conventional perception of remote work being subordinate to in-person work on its head. To do this properly will require an investment of time and money by organizations to rethink both the process and the execution of their company’s productivity, and will likely be easier for younger companies than older ones. The idea of the work pod - one that has sound proofing, good lighting, and so on - goes directly against the open plan philosophy, and tacitly says that the office is not for attendance, and that working from home is ideal. It is a modal shift from considering the office a mothership where all the work comes from to a consideration of the office as just another tool in getting work done, where those who do not have their own setups at home can come and get one at work.
Yes, you can have on-site event space and conference rooms and such, but they should be used for very specific reasons, with very specific goals. Otherwise they’re just other ways to detract from real work.
I recently set up my own home office pod that is kind of an extreme, 75% version.
It’s a sit/stand desk that has lighting and a DSLR setup - a pod and an office would likely have more distinct sound isolation, and indeed the desks may be more spread out - because the point isn’t being right next to your fellow workers, it’s to get shit done.
Realistically, the setup would just be a good camera, good enough lighting and sound, and a fast enough computer to get everything done. I truly believe that more people would be okay with remote work if they were given a more flattering angle than the classic “looking down/up at you” that most webcams give, and I think that the whole pro setup is way less contrived than most people think. Specifically, though, it does require space to setup and money to put into it - and companies need to fund these setups for their people (within reason).
Sidenote: I am happy to go into exhaustive detail as to what is in my setup, but I’ll keep it brief here - this is overkill, you could probably just use a regular USB mic, light is subjective, etc.:
Desk: Uplift L-shaped desk.
In any case, I think that any company that can be run remotely needs to flip the entire script on what an office is - if they must have one, it must exist to contribute to the primary functionality of the company, which is most likely on the computer. It is inherently foolish to continue making offices that aren’t oriented around how the job is done, which is a part of why people are so resistant to go back. So why not make the office a tool? Why not make the office something that makes sense, that’s focused on how things are done efficiently rather than what we wish was efficient?
And, frankly, I think a lot of people would feel less Zoom fatigued if they were given setups that made them feel like they looked professional. Everybody is self conscious, and bad webcams make everybody look bad. If organizations made Zoom as pleasant as possible when you need to be on camera, I think it’d help a bit.
The reality is that this is an impossible dream for a lot of companies. The forced return to the office is one borne of cowardice and greed by a C-suite obsessed with optics and having little puppets to dance for them versus any actual execution of a mission. But for new companies, when an office is necessary we should look to create one that helps you plug into the digital presence of your company rather than forcing people to commute and meet for no reason.