Why I'm looking forward to returning to the office
There is a lot of discussion about the future of work and what a hybrid workforce might look like at the moment as various countries reduce restrictions on social distancing. As we readjust to being in the office again at least some of the time, I’m curious to know what are you looking forward to.
I appreciate a blend between office and home working. I appreciate the flexibility to be able to work from home some of the time and it is something I was able to take advantage of long before the pandemic. However, I don’t think working from home all the time is optimal for a lot of companies, particularly where collaboration and creativity is required. I also believe that a lot of learning takes place from being around colleagues, whether formally or informally, which takes a lot of effort to replicate virtually.
There are definitely cultural influences on this decision and adaptation. When I was based in Shanghai last year we were back in the office on rotations by April and getting towards 80% presence at the end of May. Many local companies had demanded everyone should be back in full time much earlier. The flexibility that we allowed was appreciated by our staff, who felt that their concerns about the virus were being listened to as well as enjoying the flexibility that working from home allowed. Prior to the pandemic working from home was rare in China and there was an expectation to be present in the office all the time. The recent experience has allowed a shift in acceptance of flexible working patterns that was missing beforehand.
If your work requires you to focus independently and tune out distractions, working from home, saving yourself a commute through rush hour and expensive coffees can make sense. If you spend your days in meetings with people in other locations anyway, I see there is little to be gained by trekking into the office to make the same calls if you have the right environment at home. There are many pros for continuing down a hybrid path that I won't repeat here.
Here is what I am looking forward to when we can return to the office.
I miss people! I am an extrovert and am energised by connecting with people. One thing I noticed clearly in Shanghai was that the energy levels lifted as people returned to interacting with colleagues again in person.
I miss those chance meetings of bumping into people in the coffee shop or lift lobby and catching up. It has often been a useful opportunity to progress discussions or highlight a follow up that might otherwise be challenging to get attention on. I find things can be resolved faster as you have the ability to grab someone for a quick conversation to resolve an issue without having to book a meeting. Those “walk and talk” moments when you discuss something on the way to lunch or coffee as well as an ability to have sensitive discussions face to face.
I find that being physically present can be important for solving difficult problems. Being in a room together, having dedicated focus and being able to read body language can mean that it is easier to tackle thorny issues and get more commitment to working towards a shared goal. This also applies to times when creativity and challenge are needed; generating new ideas and energy is a lot easier in person.
I think being in the office particularly helps when joining a team and starting a new role. As I have progressed through my career I have learned so much from my colleagues. This was through coaching and mentoring in the moment, observing their interactions and being able to sit in on meetings to start to understand the different dynamics and complexities. Watching a more experienced colleague handle a difficult conversation with tact and diplomacy or closing a deal with a customer can be a rich learning experience that is hard to replicate virtually.
Building social connections is definitely easier in the office. Most of us have been able to keep in contact with those colleagues we already know through virtual means. However, getting to know new team members beyond a professional level is much harder without those opportunities for an after work drink or lunch. I am grateful that I have many colleagues who have become friends and people I can call on for help. Yes, these might initially come about from working on something together but the connection comes from those discussions beyond the topic at hand. Getting to know each other outside of meetings, whether on the way to a meeting, at an offsite or that Friday afternoon laughter that seems to infect all work places as people relax into the weekend (or Thursday when in the Middle East).
It might be controversial but I also miss having a commute. I’m not talking about the part where I’m packed on a sweaty train during rush hour for an extended time but having a distinct separation between home and work. I find that time on the way into the office helps prepare for the day, reading news and checking your diary, starting emails. On the way home, it again gives me time to close things off and start to decompress from the day and think about things other than work. The time when reading for pleasure or learning or listening to podcasts has dedicated focus without distraction from colleagues or home chores. I started trying to create some of this space when working from home by heading out to get a coffee first thing (when this was allowed), to signal to my brain that the workday was starting.
And having been away from London for 3 years, I miss a good Pret lunch!
What are you looking forward to when returning to the office?