In our last blog we reported on a webinar that considered what we had learnt from an enforced period of working without an office. In this blog we look forward to some of the variables that organisations will need to consider as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are relaxed around the world. We have called the office to which we return whilst restrictions of some sort are still in place the ‘transition office’.
Views on how to approach this vary a great deal. Just this week in the Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway eulogised the office arguing “we’d miss them desperately if they were gone”. On the same page, Henry Mance presented the counter argument in an obituary to the office. Perhaps these divergent views are not surprising. No-one has ever encountered a situation like this before and our experiences of working from home over the last two months have varied a great deal, for some a revelation and a joy, for others nigh-on impossible. So how can organisations go about making decisions about the transitional office?
The first question will typically be a purely functional one; who needs to be in the office for our organisation simply to function? With current government guidance, we should not be considering anyone else.
As restrictions are further relaxed, the second set of questions become physical. Social distancing measures are still likely to be necessary, at least until a vaccine is found and rolled out to the whole population, so we must recognise that we are likely to experience a lengthy period of transition. This transition will be characterised by a reduced number of people being given access to the office at the same time. Physical constraints will need to be evaluated to calculate the number of people that can access the office at one time safely. This number might be manipulated up and down through the deployment of various types of screening, one-way systems and repurposing of communal spaces, but not all staff will be able to be co-located at one time.
This will mean that a third set of questions, that are essentially social in nature, will need to be answered concerning who can access the office, and when, through the use of rotas and shift patterns. So, the transition office is likely to be a mixture of work-from-home and working with physical distance in the office and in a typical week an individual might be expected to do both.
In this environment, it is the social questions that are likely to have the greatest impact on the value the office environment may or may not offer the organisation. Importantly, it is the experience through transition that is likely to impact longer term decisions about the office. So, what might drive these social decisions?
It will be tempting to think about who will be in the office at the same time in terms of efficiency. Permitting people from the same department to occupy the office at the same time will make more efficient lines of communication for those that communicate most frequently. However, such arrangements can have serious downsides by creating silos in organisations that have adverse effects of creativity, problem solving and resolving conflicts. Functionally organised organisations have suffered from this for years and the transition office will exaggerate these effects.
Creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution are encouraged through interaction with people you don’t normally interact with. It’s what Thomas Heatherwick, the English designer, calls the “chemistry of the unexpected”. Organisations that value these outcomes could think about organising their rotas and shift patterns around groups of people that do not normally work together. The within-department interaction will still function online as it has for the past 2 months.
Once the rotas and shifts are set there is a danger that new silos will be created and the chance encounters that are the driving force of creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution may be lost. It is, therefore, worth thinking about changing those rotas although we recognise that the return to office guidelines make this difficult.
The social imperative discussed here also has implications for the physical design of the transition office. Rather than aim to get as many people back into the office as possible by erecting barriers between desks, the social view of the value of the office suggests that consideration be given to how interaction can be encouraged at a distance. This may result in some counter-intuitive decisions such as expanding communal areas at the expense of the absolute number that can be present in the office at the same time.
In the longer run, following this sort of programme for the transition office may throw up some very pleasant surprises for organisations that have suffered from silos in the past. It may lead to new ways of working that can be adopted more permanently. One of the advantages of the likely prolonged period of transition is that it also acts as an extended period of experiment where new modes of working can be tried out.