Friday, March 12, 2021

Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home

Our pandemic, which has cut back workers’ on-site hours in amounts varying with time and organization, has caused differing reactions from employees and their management.  Three articles have shown that – “July Is the New January:  More Companies Delay Return to the Office” by Gillian Friedman and Kellen Browning in the October 13th New York Times, “Has the Pandemic Transformed the Office Forever?” by John Seabrook in the February 1st New Yorker, and “When will office workers return?”, by Bartleby in the February 20th Economist.  They all have valuable insights, particularly the Seabrook effort, a panoramic view of both title subjects.

There seems still to be, however, a failure of too many people to look at the actual effects of what was once called “telecommuting” and how offices are configured.  With AT&T, Dictaphone, and others, along with related MBA and management Ph.D. study, from 1989 to 2008 I had a ringside seat for pertinent trends, attitudes, and results.  From the three articles above and my accumulated knowledge and experience, I offer eleven unfashionable but valid ideas.

First, some employees, especially those with a tendency to underwork in the office, will ease up more if they are at home.  While many do better there, it does not make sense that people with trouble focusing in an environment designed for productivity turn into hard workers when in a place they have created for their own relaxation and distraction.

Second, as was consistently the situation in my AT&T groups, to a great extent the very people a supervisor would trust least to be effective at home are the ones wanting to work there the most.  That forces managers, who often prefer to think of employees as being identically productive, to choose between evaluating their charges more incisively and taking real production losses. 

Third, in a time where management has been so conscious of economic differences between workers that Zoom has been criticized for showing employee-residence backgrounds, working from home exacerbates those disparities, as not all people have equally compatible family arrangements or highly suitable work areas. 

Fourth, since about 1990 a pendulum has swung back and forth twice between working remotely and in offices.  As described by Friedman and Browning as well as by Seabrook, just before Covid-19 became widespread, management preference had shifted away from home offices, and they influenced employee behavior with both carrots (the likes of onsite yoga rooms, sushi bars, and free beverages and snacks) and sticks (IBM’s 2017 edict that, per Seabrook, “everyone must return to the office or leave the company,” and a similar measure by Yahoo).  That was a 180-degree change from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute proclaiming eight years earlier that those working from home “were highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues,” and was not too similar to Bartleby’s observation that “employees have become less loyal as the pandemic has progressed,” as “workers are spending more time looking for other jobs and updating their LinkedIn profiles.” 

Fifth, consistent with many of Seabrook’s examples along with these corporate decisions to end it, when working at home the social side of employment and the ability of people to work closely together are each impeded at best and crushed at worst. 

Sixth, the choice between working at home or in a company office, if companies accept that, would still, if nothing else, be useful as an employee perquisite, as ultimately that is what it would be.

Seventh, in many cases real estate expenses saved by companies from more people working at home are only transferred to the workers themselves.  Per Seabrook, office space for each employee in San Francisco can cost $20,000 per year – someone feeling obliged to upgrade from, say, a one-bedroom apartment to a place with two can end up absorbing much of that $1,667 monthly difference.

Eighth, office design factors intended to encourage workers to put in extra hours, as shown by examples in the first two articles, are, whatever they happen to be, at best marginally ethical.

Ninth, forced “collaboration,” as Seabrook put it, created by requiring people to work in public spaces, is as much of a failure now as it was when it first became popular in the 1990s. 

Tenth, a pendulum has also swung between preferred office designs, from cubicles to desks in open rooms and back again, with an entertaining example, found by Seabrook, of a company conjuring up “” focus pods” that resembled three-sided restaurant booths” and “could be made higher, so they are more like an enclosed-booth experience.”  As the author pointed out, those are cubicles.  Out of style as they are, cubicles may still be the best office arrangement, as they offer much privacy and relative quiet with only short walks to coworkers and meeting areas. 

Eleventh, while business publications have long been notorious for rediscovering ideas and labeling them innovations, in nowhere other than in the combined area of working at home and designing offices is it clearer that, as per a song title from the 1974 movie All That Jazz, “everything old is new again.”  Offices were around before the days of Bob Cratchit’s perch in A Christmas Carol, and we are approaching 30 years of widespread remote-work-enabling Internet access.  It is time to look more at business history, with emphasis on what has been successful and what has not.  In the meantime, nobody should be surprised if old tactics, especially if forgotten, get us the same results.

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