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Covid-19

The office is not dead… yet

2 weeks ago • by John Weeks, Mahwesh Khan in Videos

Creativity could become a casualty of the new workplace order if you don’t reassess the functions that workspaces need to serve as employees embrace a new hybrid model of working....

Creativity and culture could become casualties of the new workplace order if you don’t reassess the functions that offices need to fill as employees embrace a new hybrid model of working.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for rapid change for many businessesRemote working has allowed employees to maintain and, in some cases, increase their productivity. Surveys show that while people miss the office, they want to continue to work remotely at least some of the time. Given this, companies are devising plans for a hybrid model of work with some office time and some working from home. Last month, for example, Salesforce announced a new “work from anywhere” strategy that grants employees the flexibility to choose what place they consider the office; it expects that most people will work from the office between one and three days per week. To make these hybrid models work, however, leaders must rethink the purpose—and therefore the design—of the office. How the office is set up may have a pronounced effect on the success of a company. 

Having written in the past about the office environment and its effect on working life, we took the opportunity during COVID to look at the other side of the equation: the impact of remote working on office culture. What we found is that informal interactions at the office, the so-called “watercooler moments” where employees bump into each other and chatfar more important than often recognized—are the hardest thing to replicate virtuallySmall moments and serendipitous encounters in the corridor or over a cup of coffee in the break room are often the spark for inspiration and collaboration. These interactions are critical for effective team building and working across different departments.  

Culture space

The primary purpose of an office will be to provide employees with a social anchor where colleagues can meet, exchange ideas in a casual fashion and build the ties that create strong teams and strong cultures. Individual work and formal meetings can be done remotely. The office, then, should be redesigned to foster human engagement. 

The office needs to be planned with spaces where employees can gather but still have space away from others, such as alcoves or separate seating lounges or high tables near the coffee machine. Basically, it’s important to strike a balance between openness and privacy. It’s important also to consider acoustics when designing spaces, so if there is a lot of openness people can still talk and hear each other with a degree of privacy.  

Design matters

Many companies have already moved to open-seating models, but had this backfire as open tables and a total lack of privacy are actually detrimental to productivity as well as morale. The office needs to be planned with spaces where employees can gather but still have space away from others, such as alcoves or separate seating lounges or high tables near the coffee machine. Basically, it’s important to strike a balance between openness and privacy. It’s important to consider acoustics when designing spaces, so if there is a lot of openness people can still talk and hear each other with a degree of privacy.

Leadership is key

Once companies have figured out smart designs that encourage casual interactions, the change must be supported by leadership. Leaders must recognize that these moments that perhaps previously were interpreted as “time wasting” are indeed vital; and managers must lead by example, making people comfortable so they understand they have permission to relax and bond with their colleagues. By modelling open behaviors and not attending meetings all day, leaders can show employees it’s okay to use the office time to create social bonds and foster collegial relationships. 

The office as we used to know it may in fact be dead, but a new one is rising from the ashes. As more companies announce their decisions about how employees come back to work, they have the chance to recreate the office space necessary to match the new working world—  a world where the workplace can be anywhere, but the office becomes the place to breed creativity and connection. 

John Weeks is Professor of Leadership at IMD. Mahwesh Khan is a Research Associate at IMD.  

Read more about IMD’s research into unlocking corporate purpose published in the latest HBR edition here. 

Authors

John Weeks

John Weeks

Professor of Leadership at IMD

Professor Weeks helps leaders understand how they can manage themselves to lead others more effectively and to have a positive and intentional impact on the culture in their part of their organization. Before joining IMD in 2007, he spent 11 years at INSEAD (France), where he was nominated three times as “Best Teacher.” An American who has lived on three continents, he served on the Board of Directors of LEO Pharma, and he has worked with clients in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Mahwesh Khan

Research Associate at IMD

Mahwesh Khan joined IMD in 2019, bringing over 15 years of experience in facilitating transformation journeys for companies and organizations. She works with IMD faculty on practitioner research projects and publications, as well as on delivery of advisory projects, focusing on qualitative analyses across diverse business domains. Her expertise lies in working with corporate boards and C-suite on governance and strategy diagnostics.

 

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