Thanks to the recent explosion in remote working, you could be forgiven for thinking the office is dead; that no one wants to go back, even that there’s no point going back. You’d be wrong. The office is in fact very much alive – and vital for your career.
What has the office ever done for us?
The pandemic revealed a new aristocracy and a new proletariat. They have very different attitudes to the office: the aristocracy see no point to the office and want to stay with remote working; the proletariat are keen to get into the office soon and often.
The Covid aristocracy are typically well-established team members who have a nice house and a long commute. For them, the pandemic was a blessing. They could give up the long commute, saving both time and money. They probably had somewhere decent to work as a home office. Crucially, they had all the networks of trust and influence that makes them effective team members; they know who to call to make things happen. They can be highly effective working from their nice home. The aristocrats are the people who see no point in the office and don’t want to go back.
In contrast, the Covid proletariat have been very keen to get into the office as soon as possible, for as long as possible. As with all proletariat throughout the ages, they have suffered while the aristocracy enjoyed life. The proletariat are typically younger staff who may be new to the world of work or new to the business. They may well have been in a flat-share, only to discover that they were locked down with people they didn’t really like. They were working from the end of the bed. Most importantly, they didn’t have any networks of trust and influence, which meant they didn’t know how to get things done. They are anxious to get into the office to learn how to succeed.
A new synthesis
Aficionados of the Marxist dialectic will be delighted to find that between the aristocratic thesis (get rid of the office) and the antithesis of the proletariat (everyone should be in the office) a new synthesis of the two extremes is emerging. Leaving the office during the pandemic has helped us discover why the office still has a role to play, in five crucial areas:
1. Collaboration and creativity
The office is a wonderful communication and collaboration machine. You have endless opportunities to bump into people, nobble people and test ideas both formally in meetings and informally around the watercooler. Telling people they need to be creative and spontaneous at 10.30am next Tuesday on Zoom rarely works.
Mentoring in person and in the office is vital, as the Covid proletariat will tell you. If you are part of the aristocracy, then, noblesse oblige, you are probably well placed to be a good mentor, so get into the office and do your duty at least occasionally.
3. Building your networks of trust and influence
Managers used to make things happen through people they controlled. Now you have to make things happen through people you do not control (other departments, suppliers, partners or customers), or through professionals who do not want to be controlled. That changes everything. You have to build networks of trust and influence to make things happen. Trust is best built face to face through shared experiences as well as common values and goals.
4. Building a common culture
This matters if you believe that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In the office everyone picks up the informal and unwritten rules of engagement fast, while working remotely it’s not even clear what the core working hours should be.
5. Progressing your career
In the office you are in the information flow. You know where the best opportunities are emerging and where the death star projects lurk. You can make yourself visible, can stake your claim to fame and tell your story; you can get the right boss and right role. The lesson is clear: if you want a job, work from home; if you want a career go to the office.
Equally, we have discovered working from home is far better for work that requires no distraction, such as coding or reviewing legal documents. Although there are distractions at home, at least you have some ability to control them.
Welcome to the new era of hybrid working
Find resources, top tips and guidance in CMI’s Hybrid Working Guide, part of the Better Managers Roadmap, and navigate a successful switch to hybrid.Download now
Revolution draws its poetry from the future
The reality is that hybrid working is here to stay. In the future we will use the office less – but better.
Given that form follows function, we will have to reinvent the office itself. If its value lies in collaborative activities, then the office has to be designed for collaboration: rows of hot desks are good neither for collaborative work nor for high-concentration work.
We are just starting to rediscover the future of the office – and we have a world to win.
Image: Shutterstock/Flamingo Images
Jo’s book Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams (Bloomsbury, 2021) is out now.
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