in Books, Work

📚 Why Workplace

A friend of mine recently handed me a hard copy of this free book from Leesman, the workplace consultancy firm. The writing is very considered and insightful, and the book does a great job of marketing the company as experts in their field.

It told me what I already know about open plan offices and emphasises that we must think about the quality of the time spent between collaborating.

If you are mainly trying to focus on individual work, or need to be on calls all day, an open plan office is unlikely to be as good as being in a dedicated home working space. At home, one-on-one meetings are a breeze — I just join the call at the scheduled time. In the office I have to find a meeting room, take my various devices there and get myself set up. It’s a little thing but it adds to the friction of the day.

I really like the emphasis on taking a bottom-up research-based approach to understanding who your people are and what they do, as the same setup will not be universally good for everyone:

Recent analysis by Leesman across a sample of 860,476 employees showed that 56% of respondents will select ‘collaborating on focused work’ as part of their role and 36% say they ‘collaborate on creative work’. But go further with the granular analysis of ‘we activities’ and ‘me activities’ and a mere 3% have roles where their selected mix of activities would have them categorised as highly collaborative.

In contrast, 19% have highly individual work profiles. When in the office, employees working in more collaborative roles have a better experience than those in more individual roles. But from home the opposite happens: those in highly individual roles have the better experience, while those in highly collaborative roles have the least positive.

It also reminded me of Liz Stokoe’s point that “good communication depends on good communicators — regardless of modality.”

But don’t be distracted by the overhyped talk of serendipitous ‘water cooler moments’. In the average office, you should expect there to be as much destructive gossip and toxic debate happening there, as there is the exchange of sparky ideas that trigger your next market disrupting solution. Engaged employees gathering at the water cooler is great. Actively disengaged employees gathering there is not.

The book emphasises that we need to be clear on how ‘productivity’ is defined. Working longer hours is not by itself a productivity gain:

A note of caution though on reported productivity gains. There is much discussion around the perceived productivity gain being a result of employees working during the time they might have commuted to an office, effectively extending their working day. Whether this truly represents an equitable productivity gain is highly questionable.

Productivity is defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs, so more hours spent delivering more output is no improvement at all. Employees gifting you their commuting hours is not sustainable and remember their hours cost you way more in salaries than does the space you previously used to accommodate them. So as the sense of crisis response lessens and those employees progressively withdraw those commuting hours, expect those outputs to go back to nearer where they once were. If employees were suddenly rejoicing at halving the time taken to complete twice the work, that would be a different story. They are not.

As per the title, the emphasis of the book is to encourage leaders to think about why staff would want to be in your office. Are the trade-off of the costs and experience of commuting, versus the experience when they are there, worth it?

Each organisation will be different, and there will be different needs for different people within a firm. It makes sense to think of people’s homes as an extension of the office, with their home working space (if they have one) being conducive to different types of work.

One thing that has struck me as absent from all of the narrative about returning to the office are the needs and experiences of people that work in highly dispersed teams. I keep hearing that we have to get back to the office to keep our culture and collaboration going. However, at the moment half of my immediate colleagues with whom I collaborate and work with on a day-to-day basis aren’t in the same country. My team are responsible for the technology in five offices around the globe, only one of which is in the UK. We are unlikely to ever be all in the same space at the same time.

Back when I was working for a bank that had a much bigger presence in London than my current employer, colleagues were located across the City in buildings that could be a 15 minute walk away from each other. Some days could have intra-day commutes of an hour or more spent shuttling between offices. My time there pre-dated mass-market desktop videoconferencing, so I assume that the intra-day commute is now a thing of the past. But it means that there are many people who are spending most of their time in meetings with people that could be in a building next door, in their own home, or halfway around the world.

With our own return to the office pilot, I’ve found that on the days when there is a reason to be in the office — doing physical IT infrastructure work or being present for a ‘town hall’-style meeting — it has been great to be there. I’ve even enjoyed the commute, blocking the unmasked fellow commuters from my mind and using the time to focus on my writing hobby. But not all days are like this. A day spent in the office doing work and joining meetings that I could more effectively and efficiently accomplished at home feels illogical.

There isn’t yet a manual that tells you how to best approach the challenges for your own specific organisation, and this book won’t solve your problems. But it is rich in factors to consider and offers some jumping off points for much deeper thinking.

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