The future of office working

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The lockdown hasn’t effected my work environment that much. This is a picture of my home office, my garden office, my “man cave.” I am very lucky. When I’m not on site with clients I spend most of my time working here. Still, I miss visiting clients and conferences – although I did squeeze in Agile on the Beach New Zealand in the closing days of the old world.

A friend of mine works for Canonical – the Ubuntu Linux people. The vast majority of the people at Ubuntu work remotely. So while my friend lives in New Zealand he works with a team spread out across the world.

Once or twice a year, his whole team co-locates. They all fly together and work together for a couple of weeks, a sprint. Then they return home and work remotely with each other for another six months, then repeat. Once or twice I’ve seen Tim as he works in, or passes through, London. But as luck would have it the week I was in New Zealand he was on his travels.

In all this talk of how wonderful working-from home can be I don’t think there has been enough discussion about what makes a good experience and what makes it bad. The Ubuntu story highlights a couple of points which I think are missing from much of the current discussion over remote/home working.

Firstly the team are equal: they are all remote.

Over the years I have observed big differences in the way teams which are all distributed operate and the way teams with only one or two members operate. When the bulk of a team are co-located and only one or two are remote there is an unequal relationship. My intuition says teams are better off when they are either all remote or all co-located. When five of the team are co-located and a sixth member is remote then things are more difficult.

The way lockdown came about this year teams went from one to the other overnight, literally. Which also means it was very egalitarian. Everyone was in the same position. That can only be a good thing.

The second thing I take from Ubuntu is that face-to-face time is still valued. In fact, as we unlock I expect home working will be more common, more remote tools will be used but we will value co-locating and face-to-face contact all the more.

Where companies keep people remote I expect we will see the emergence of deliberate co-location. This might be a two week block like my friend or it might be a few hours or a whole day. I can easily imagine benefit from an agile team coming together for one day a fortnight to close out a sprint, run a retrospective and then plan the next sprint. (That will have a knock on effect in the office market as companies stop renting offices for years and rent meeting rooms by the day.)

In fact this will be essential. It is easier to build social capital – trust, comradeship – when you are face-to-face. For the last three months we have been running on the social capital and experience teams built up over years working together. The social capital account now needs toping up.

Existing teams, existing social capital and egalitarian distribution helped people work during the lockdowns. As we slowly move back to our offices that is going to change and we will need to make deliberate efforts to replenish social capital, keep people equal and build new teams.

New teams will benefit from working together face-to-face to get to know one another. Build some social capital and norms.

New employees in particular will need time together. Especially those, like fresh graduates, who are new to work altogether. Such people need to learn how to work. Doing that in a distributed environment is a challenge.

Those new to the workforce face an additional challenge: space.

Home working is OK for me, I have a garden big enough for an office (and I had the money to buy one.) How many people have been working of their kitchen table? or bedroom? Mixing your sleeping space with your work space can damage sleep patterns and add to stress.

How many new workers have that space?

I remember when I was a fresh graduate finding my way in the world I lived in house shares. I had a room in a shared house with similar people. Some of them I counted as friends but not all of them. Some of them had bad habits. Going to an office for work was important, staying in the house – especially when they were all staying in! – would have been too much.

Then there is the question of broadband: I have 200Mb fibre to the door but many people make do with a lot less and that can be variable. Not that 200Mb comes cheap…

If a company expect someone to work from home then I think they should pay for good broadband internet. They should also provide the equipment – I have heard of only a few employers who have given staff money to buy equipment for home.

In February and March many people all over the world found themselves having to work from home. Its been a better experience than many expected but I know people are flagging, I know people keen to get back to the office. In future I expect we’ll value face-to-face contact even as many people stay at home.

In the coming months people aren’t just going to walk back to the office and pick up where they left off. Work will be more varied. But now the initial pleasure and surprise of working for home is over we need to have a conversation about what companies need to do to support working from home in future and how it can be made sustainable.


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