The office has undoubted advantages: it allows you to get away from home, it offers opportunities to socialise which foster feelings of sharing - and, as Lucy Kellaway has pointed out with her usual irony, it provides occasions to meet husbands or wives. We are social beings who need physical proximity - and virtual proximity is no substitute.
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The fact that some companies seek to replicate in a virtual environment the informal practices of the office is, paradoxically, enlightening. For example, Anne Sheenan, director of Vodafone Business UK (United Kingdom) created the "Sandwich with Anne" programme: twice a week she invites 12 employees from different areas: these people receive a sandwich lunch at home and, at one o'clock in the afternoon, they get together for lunch and chat online for an hour. The idea is formulated by Alexandra Monteiro, from OutSystems, as meaning that "distant does not mean separate". Managers of this company sent to the homes of employees, at key moments of work, gifts accompanied by messages of gratitude.

Has the pandemic ushered in the end of office? The Financial Times even wrote a humorous obituary of the office. The Economist explained that many offices are run as "relics of the past". Humour is perhaps the appropriate way to deal with such guesswork. The news of the death of the office is manifestly exaggerated, although some news is more exaggerated than others. The Economist magazine reported on 12 September 2020 that 84% of office workers in France, but "only" 40% in the UK, were returning to their desks. Jack Dorsey, the leader of Twitter, announced that his workers could work from home "forever" - but Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, said he saw nothing positive in that format. Hastings added that the inability to interact face-to-face with other workers is a source of problems and sacrifices - and vaticinated that the workweek of the future would include four days in the office and one day of remote work. A culture, like Neflix's, heavily reliant on the exchange of ideas can be particularly sensitive to anything that complicates that exchange. Bloomberg has offered an extra ÔéČ75 a day aimed at bringing its workers back to offices in London.

The Hybrid Model

Most likely, some professions will henceforth move to working from home, at least for part of the days of the week. Nicholas Bloom argues that, after being a stigmatised practice (sometimes jocularly referred to as 'shirking from home' rather than 'working from home'), working from home one to three days a week will become normal. Previous experimental evidence, moreover, already showed the benefits of working more flexibly and from home. The rarity of the experiment made it "weird", but the pandemic has normalised it and may precipitate the adoption of new designs. A good motto for the future may be the one adopted by OutSystems with employees: "What works for you works for OutSystems".

In the future, as is already the case today, some professionals will work exclusively from home (or from coworking spaces), and will respond to clients based anywhere on the planet. Organisations will give workers the possibility to choose, under certain conditions, the preferred format. Whatever happens, the pandemic has shown that many activities can be carried out through teleworking - avoiding travel and the discomfort associated with it, and improving environmental quality.

Instead of romanticising the possibilities, not least because new forms of autonomy will coexist with emerging expressions of control, let's reflect on the pros and cons of telework. On what he learned from the crisis, Paulo Pereira da Silva, leader of Renova, said:

"Many things can be done from home. We spent everyone working on the outside networks and there weren't any information security problems. But there is one thing I don't think works outside: new ideas and innovation. Many of the new ideas have to do with informal conversations, for example when we're having coffee together. It's hard to generate them through Zoom or Teams."

New, more flexible and geographically distributed working models were being tested before the pandemic - the pandemic will have accelerated them. Kodak's senior management team, for example, works in several cities: it's what goes on in the market that counts, not what happens in Rochester (the bankrupt company's headquarters, currently being reinvented). But the advantages of teleworking and remote meetings coexist with several disadvantages. Tacit knowledge, which is built on a day-to-day basis, between colleagues working together, could be negatively affected. The creation of a collective identity will also be hampered. The simple use of humour is severely weakened: between the timing of a joke and the activation of the sound in a digital meeting, the moment of humour is already behind us.

Moreover, companies will be able to take undue advantage of the exceptional possibilities created to obtain tax benefits, even if this is to the detriment of workers and the state. This could be what Francisco Lou├ž├ú called a "fierce conservative revolution" - or simply taking opportunistic advantage of the situation. It is also possible that some companies, realising the cost savings that can be achieved by reducing office space, force workers to operate from home and subject them to cyber-control. This could lead to new imbalances - as not everyone has decent conditions at home. In short: There is a risk that the work-family conflict will turn into an invasion of the family by work.

While organisations are not platforms for independent freelancers (a possibility desired by some, but highly problematic from the point of view of the health of individuals and societies), creating team spirit with "virtual jolas" (an expression used by a participant in a training programme) seems hardly effective. It is through face-to-face conversation and the sharing of informal moments that the social fabric is enriched, a shared culture is fostered and, in this way, creativity is stimulated. Without the coffee machine around which people congregate, many good ideas would not flourish. Without these informal interactions, the organisation loses creative wealth and psychological capital, and the trust that nurtures resilience does not flourish.

From the above it can be understood that the existence of offices and other physical spaces for interaction in organizations does not have to be a hindrance to telework - nor the opposite. Therefore, it is possible that hybrid models will become more common and that more professionals will become "hybrid workers". The change will lead designers and architects to seek new solutions for spaces (at home and at work) more favorable to the new normal: more prepared for remote work, more promoting health and comfort. But let us reiterate: the risks are significant.

Legislation will also have to be adjusted to this new reality, as some idiosyncratic challenges emerge from working from home. For example, can companies monitor workers remotely - and under what conditions? Who is liable for an accident that occurs at home while working? Who owns the equipment used for teleworking? Should companies reward workers for using home space to work?

Excerpt from the book by Miguel Pina e Cunha and Arm├ęnio Rego - Leadership in the New Normal

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References

[1] Kellaway (2020)

[1] Gratton (2020)

[1] Monteiro (2020)

[1] Mance (2020)

[1] The Economist (2020n)

[1] The Economist (2020k)

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Executive Education
Published in 
16/4/2021
 in the area of 
Leadership & People

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