in Work

Returning to the office, redux

Recently I wrote up my thoughts on returning to the office. Underpinning this was an assumption, which seems to be widely shared, of the need to get people together physically on a regular basis, with intuition telling us that this somehow creates a shared culture. This week I heard a very senior executive express that “we can’t build a culture while we’re all shut away in our homes”. Since I wrote my post, my view has been challenged on this and I am no longer sure that this ‘intuitive’ understanding is correct.

The ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ myth

Matt Ballantine pointed me towards Liz Stokoe’s work as Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. Her presentation on being Physically distanced, socially close from December 2020 is fascinating and well worth a watch.

The key points I took from her presentation are that:

  • The belief that ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ is nonsense. If this were true, how could we successfully talk to each other on the phone, have conversations with blind people, or sustain romantic relationships via text message?
  • Being co-present doesn’t guarantee quality. From her research, people tend to be good or poor communicators regardless of modality. We’ve all been in terrible in-person meetings and excellent remote ones. Having a good chair can make all the difference in either case. Having people who get the chair’s attention either in-person or remotely (“Sarah has her hand up”) are also useful in both cases.1
  • Remote meetings can offer more than in-person meetings; the sidebar chat would be rude in-person but can offer another way for meeting participants to express their views and ‘get a word in’.

Stokoe explores this further in a blog post that questions whether in-person communication is really the ‘gold standard’:

…video-calling is said to involve “inevitable miscommunication” such as “those awkward nanoseconds of wondering who’s going to talk next, followed by four people saying “Oops, sorry — no, you — no, you go ahead” at the same time”. While such ‘miscommunication’ problems do occur in video calls, they also occur during in-person encounters — and are completely ordinary.

There is less of a difference between in-person and remote interaction than we may think.

The office is a place to build relationships, but at the cost of getting work done

There are many reasons to go into an office. Doing so in order to be more productive is probably not one of them. Having now been back a few days each week, I am concluding that being present in the office has a terrible impact on my productivity.

In a recent episode of the Postlight Podcast, co-founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Vicky Volvovski, Senior Director and Head of Product Management at their firm, who has worked remotely for a decade. The prompt for the episode was her push-back on how quickly Postlight were returning to the office. The episode was recorded during Volvovski’s business trip to their office in New York City from her home in Wisconsin. From the transcript (emphasis mine):

VV: … I’ve seen it done for 10 years, and I see how productive it can be. And for me personally, like, as I said, I think I’m an eighth as productive here as I am at home because I control my environment and my schedule and my time in a way that you just don’t do when you’re in an office.

It is really hard to tell your colleagues that you are busy on focused work when they interrupt you in person. If they try to get hold of you remotely, you can just not answer the call and get them back when you have finished what you were doing. In the years before the pandemic I have worked in offices where the odd person would have a physical sign to denote whether they could be interrupted or not. Even when you are not being interrupted directly, it is so difficult to ignore the myriad of conversations going on around you. Yes, I could put on my headphones like I occasionally used to do, but this now seems silly when I’ve made the effort to get to the office in the first place.

Matt Ballantine makes the point that we need a place within a modern office for working online. I can’t get over that this might look like a ’Dilbert cube’. I worked in one of these for a short time in 2001; they might have made some sense back when we the office was the only place where we had good, reliable computing and networking, but I am not sure about them now. Having single person booths in an activity-based workspace can help, but they are claustrophobic if you are spending most of your day in online calls.

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

You don’t need to be together physically to build your culture

If the driver of being in the office is to build culture across the organisation then I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason either. During lockdown I took part in the the process of interviewing, hiring, on-boarding and working with someone who is now a peer. In the months we have spent working remotely together, we’ve developed an cooperative, productive, trusting and psychologically safe relationship. We get stuff done. I have worked with some of my colleagues in the team for over two years without meeting them and we have great working relationships. My current organisation spans 23 countries, and I’ve recently been meeting remotely with people from most of those locations as part of a big group programme. From these encounters, I can say that we definitely have a recognisable company culture despite being remote from each other. Each office is slightly different, but in general the people working in each one understand what it means to be part of the greater whole.

The quality of our interactions are important, whether remote or in-person. A colleague of mine noticed that they had worked with someone else in the organisation for years but had never developed a relationship with them as most of the interactions were transactional. You definitely need to take the time to develop a relationship beyond the work at hand. This would probably be easier in person, but it can absolutely be done remotely. (Putting your camera on by default really helps, especially if you’re meeting someone to build your relationship, e.g. in a one-on-one.) From the Postlight Podcast again:

PF: Yeah, I’ll make a point here, which is that you [Rich Ziade] and myself as well, do not like relationship building remotely. We think it’s artificial and fake. And I hate it.

VV: But this is the first time you’re meeting me in person, I’d say we have a pretty good relationship. Like, it happened.

In another episode of the podcast, Ford and Ziade are talking to Tracey Zimmerman, President and CEO of rival firm Robots & Pencils. Ziade asks Zimmerman how they have made a success of remote working, given that they are a remote-first organisation.

TZ: I would say the number one thing is, you know, yes, Slack is our client, our partner, but like, first Slack solved our problem of working across all these different locations. Slack is Robots & Pencils’ headquarters. Absolutely. It’s where all the people are. It’s where we can work together on projects. It’s where we build culture. … But that is number one is actually starting with digital and distributed workforce first is like a mental model that I think then just removes a lot of problems.

They do get together, but it isn’t to work, per se:

TZ: We do conference every couple years that we call Robocon, where we take everyone from the entire company and fly them into one location. And we basically work learn and play together for a week. … And that’s, you know, you’re trying to create connection. But at the end of the day, we again, we’re trying to solve for the talent. So where the talent thinks they can do their best work is where they should work.

Back in May 2020 I introduced a weekly ‘random coffees’ initiative into my part of the company. We have around 75 out of 300 staff signed up across six cities, and have had over 2,500 coffees so far. I would argue that we are much more connected than we ever have been in the past, and this was achieved while we were all working remotely.

I’ve noticed that there is a danger of leaving some of the team behind as we talk about returning to our office in London. Globally, we are not all at the same phase of the pandemic. Our attempts at hybrid meetings have shown me what I knew beforehand in that this is the worst of all worlds, confirmed to me afterwards by those people who weren’t physically in the room. We have some Owl devices arriving soon and it will be interesting to see what difference they make.

Trusting staff to meet the needs of their clients

I have heard a lot of discussion about us being where the client wants us to be, and this is clearly important. In a lot of cases, where they want us to be may not be our office. The client may want us to come to them. But you would hope that if your staff are working with clients and are delivering excellent client service, they know exactly where they need to be and will act accordingly. Zimmerman again:

TZ: And I always say [to] the team, I’m like, look, 99% of the time, I’m going to give you so much flexibility you can’t even stand it. Every once in a while, I’m going to call you on a Sunday night, and ask you to get on a plane and be at a client’s office on Monday morning. I have never had a problem with somebody doing that. Because we try to be so accommodating to them. But from a delivery perspective, my clients, Paul, I couldn’t do that, if I didn’t screen for culture on the way in and hire people that could really lead themselves. They themselves will say to me, ‘Hey, I’m gonna fly in I decided Sunday night’ they’re telling me right? ‘Hey, FYI, I’m going to clients late on Monday morning, I booked my travel, you know, let me know if you want to talk’ or whatever, because they’re trying to solve the client’s problems, too.

What the future may look like if we dispel the myths

Back on the podcast with Vicky Volvovski, Paul Ford articulates a vision of the future:

PF: Five years from now, there is a group of people who just like to work together. There are certain projects that are more focused on in person interaction or [in] getting kicked off. And so people are in [the office] working on those. … And the office functions more as an event space and the organization does stuff like seminars, event[s], bringing clients in … And at that point, employees are expected to really be there and participate in those kind of interactions as a group in a structured way. … And then there is ‘headphones on’ design time and engineering time and product management time. We don’t care. You can do that on the space station.

…but we’ll get there slowly. It won’t switch to a utopian, fully optimised future state overnight:

PF: …what we’re doing is we’re waiting for other expectations to change that we can’t control right now. So there are expectations from our employees that we can’t control, there are expectations from our clients and expectations from the world about what an agency is, and what happens. Those are going to evolve. And I think they’re going to evolve in that direction. I’d be really surprised if they evolved into everyone back in the office all the time.

My view is that the best companies will end up in a situation where they:

  1. Hire the best people;
  2. Set some ground rules about what is expected, e.g. be where the client wants them to be, and to participate in-person on team-wide/company-wide event days;
  3. Have an understanding that being in an open-plan office is more about relationship building than getting work done;
  4. Provide a variety of activity-based workspaces in their offices;
  5. Let staff decide where the best place is to be productive on any given day.

Going into the office to work on your own, or to spend time online with your remote colleagues, makes no sense if you have a productive, healthy space to work in at home. Combine an office day with meeting people for lunch or dinner, or going to an event in the evening. Make the trip worth it.

It’ll take a while for us to get there, particularly while the myths persist that in-person working is the ’gold standard’ that we should all aspire to.

  1. It’s been interesting to observe that people are now putting their hands up in our in-person meetings, a change brought about by people getting used to the ‘raise hand’ function in Microsoft Teams. 

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