In light of most in-office work settings becoming at-home work settings for the last year and a half, there has been a lot of talk about <cue echoey outer space narrator voice> “The future of work”. Now that office workers have tasted a bit of independence and flexibility, I don’t think that there is going to be a mad rush back to the way things were prior to COVID any time soon. Long-term, I think the at-work experience is going to vary quite a bit by employer. Some employers will expect demand a return to the office, others will stay remote indefinitely, and a third group will do the hard work of trying to balance the two. It’s going to be a long-fought battle that will depend on macroeconomic trends, personal opinions of leadership, what employees demand, and productivity levels. I’d be foolish to predict the outcome. What I can tell you is what I think people want and how I hope things shake out for the workforce based on my owned lived experience in the office, and now in early retirement.
Before COVID, I spent the prior 16 years of my life in an office. For the first 3 years, I worked at a small non-profit and I had my very own small bedroom-sized office, with a door, overlooking a beautiful duck and goose-filled pond with a giant water fountain in the middle. There were common meeting areas and an occasional knock on an open door to shoot the breeze. As an easily distracted introvert, it was an ideal physical working environment for me. The expectation, however, was that there were no “work from home” days. Unless you were moderately ill or worse, you showed up. That was not ideal, but I did not much care at the time – I was just thrilled to have my first legit post-grad job with my very own office.
Then, I took a job at MegaCorp. As most trendy, fast-growing, high tech companies do, everyone was herded into a compact open-floor setting. It didn’t start that way. At first, each mini-team had a large 4-person cubicle with noise dampening walls up to our heads while seated. Eventually, those walls were removed and people were seated about 3 feet apart. The constant buzz of movement, chatter, phone conversations, and keyboard clicking became deafening at times. When the cubicle walls came down, I noticed that my anxiety levels began increasing exponentially, while my productivity declined.
The promise of open floors is rooted in misinformed management belief that “they provide a more collaborative work environment”. Research shows that there is no evidence of that and that open offices actually lead to 70% fewer in-person interactions (I’ll vouch for them being worse too). I think the true open-office appeal to management is that office space costs are kept to a minimum per head and the old-school thinking that if you can chain everyone to their desks, they will be more fearful of judgment, more accountable, and therefore more productive (new research here also shows the opposite is true). Whatever the reasons, the open office concept is 40+ hours of burnout-inducing torture for an introvert that needs peace and quiet to focus.
The mental expectations part was equally as toxic to me as the physical expectations. Despite being a trendy, high-tech company, the expectation, similar to my first office job, was that unless you were ill, you were at your desk from at least 9 AM to 5:30 PM. I took this as the ultimate sign of disrespect and distrust from management. As a knowledge-based worker, so long as I had my Macbook and an internet connection, I was acutely aware that I could perform my job functions from just about any location on this planet. And I was surrounded by highly ambitious, well-educated, hard working adults that could do the same.
Despite the personal struggle, I performed well. I was the top revenue producer, among thousands, in the history of my organization. I could have done even more if given the freedom to control my day and my productivity, on my terms. And, with a whole lot less anxiety.
About 7 months prior to COVID, my entire team was shut down at my office, and asked to relocate for our jobs to continue to one of two locations many hundreds of miles away, in what seemed like an effort to cut team costs and move us closer to existing management. We were not allowed to simply continue our work (which could have been done from our current office, from home, or… yep, anywhere on the planet). Then, COVID hit, and every office across the entire company was shut down, yet to be reopened. Everyone in the company currently works from home. Oh, the irony.
Something interesting happened in those 7 months prior to the shutdown for me though. I took on a temporary role where I reported to a manager located in another office who treated me like an adult. We were a small, decentralized team of 5 across 3 different offices (2, 2, and 1). Working from home was not just accepted, it was the norm. I loved it. Finally, I felt like we the people on the team were treated like the professional adults that they were. I could focus, with peace and quiet, from home. I could run a load of laundry, load the dishwasher, or mow the lawn in quick, 10-minute breaks that made my non-work time much less frenzied. I could monitor our then newly diabetic dog without having to worry about his blood sugar crashing while I was at the office. On the flip side, if I needed a change of scenery, or had an important meeting, or we had a team get-together, or I wanted to grab lunch with a work friend, I could head on in to the office and do so. The commute was only 2 miles, so avoiding it wasn’t a huge perk, but it was additional icing on the cake and it made even 1 or 2 hour office trips worthwhile.
I experienced what a positive office work environment could be (physically and mentally), with a better work-life balance, and at least as much productivity. I don’t think that I could go back to the old way. The old way was what inspired me, in part, to achieve FIRE status, and a fear of returning to the old way has contributed to me avoiding a returning to an office.
That brings us to today. There have been a ton of polls and research out there speaking to “The future of work” and what office workers want, if/when their offices re-open, in a COVID or post-COVID world. One poll will find that the majority of office workers want to return to the office full-time. Another will cite a majority that wants to remain remote (and would even quit if forced to return). And yet another will find a majority advocating for a hybrid approach.
I’m going to make a connection here that I haven’t seen others make. I think what people want from an office environment is very similar to what is inspiring people to achieve FIRE status, what has similarly inspired the desire for self-employment or choosing part-time work over full-time, and what I hope will shape work cultures moving forward – regardless of how much time is physically spent in a seat in a shared office.
- They want to feel like they are respected and trusted to get things done, on their terms, without being physically controlled by location or mentally by butts-in-chairs expectations. Those who are wage slaves do not want to be constantly reminded that they are, in fact, always wage slaves.
- They want more freedom to handle their busy lives more on their own terms and a schedule that works for them, without guilt.
- They want to avoid pointless, morale-killing, time-sucking meetings.
- They want positive social networks and occasional in-person interactions without office politics, favoritism, and drama.
- They want more time around loved ones (including pets).
- They want to avoid time-draining daily commutes 5 days a week, especially during rush hours.
- They want the option of an occasional change of scenery versus being in 1 place all of the time.
It’s pretty simple, employers. It’s about building a new and improved culture. Build a flexible office/home work environment with these expectations built in, and you will succeed at keeping good workers happy, productive, and loyal. If you force people to go back to the old-school mandatory office dynamics of the past, you will not, and they will look for a better job.