Over the last couple years, work has been in a state of upheaval. Where people work, when they work and how they work have been reset. This rethinking of work has also called the office into question—what are its purposes, really? Is it necessary at all? And if it is, how can it serve employees better than it has in the past?
Recently, an article made the rounds which suggested the new office should be purely social (The Post-Pandemic Office Should Be A Clubhouse). Perhaps people could get their work done at home or away from the office, it said, and they could just come to the physical workplace to get a dose of social time with their work friends. Of course, connection has always been an important priority for the office, but the idea of the office for solely social purposes takes the concept to an extreme—and thinking of the office with this narrow view just isn’t enough.
More Than Kumbaya and Coffee
In particular, the office-as-only-social argument misses critical points about work—how work gets done, why people work and the places which support it.
#1 – The Office must offer the opportunity to focus
Not everyone has the opportunity to get their work done effectively at home. For the empty-nester with a dedicated home office, it seems easy and obvious that work at home can accommodate concentration and all the heads-down elements of focused work. But this isn’t the reality for the parent with young children at home, the person who lives in a small apartment with a roommate or the person who is easily distracted by all the at-home tasks vying for their attention (the laundry can have a siren song, after all). Making the assumption everyone can focus at home introduces inequities—and puts those without the ability to work effectively outside the office at a potential disadvantage.
In addition, considering how work gets done, it’s a rare day when all tasks fit into a certain mode. Work flows—from connecting with the project team to socializing over coffee on a break, and then checking an email or putting finishing touches on the report you must send to the team. In a perfect world, you might be able to socialize one day and do all your heads-down work the next, but that kind of compartmentalization is uncommon in reality.
Given these limitations of the home or remote environment, and given the way work tends to shift throughout the day or week, offices must include settings to focus and concentrate. Far from doing away with privacy or enclaves, the office must renew and refresh all the spaces where people can get away to get things done. An office that offers a variety of spaces can equalize the work experience and ensure people aren’t at a disadvantage based on the differences they face outside of the office, and it can ensure it supports the natural flow of work throughout the day.
#2 – The Office must offer the opportunity to collaborate and bond
There are tremendous advantages when people are able to roll up sleeves and do real work together. Technology has facilitated collaboration from a distance, and it is here to stay—certainly becoming part of a future of hybrid work. But virtual work cannot completely replace face-to-face efforts. When people are together in person, they can collaborate better because they can read each other’s body language more effectively, ensure everyone is included in the brainstorm, gather around the whiteboard, use a break to informally synthesize the ideas of the meeting—and more. Technology augments the in-person experience, but it is an “and,” rather than an “or.” It doesn’t fully replace the office experience.
Another key aspect of collaboration is that working together is satisfying, fulfilling and creates opportunities for bonding. It’s a misnomer that the most effective team building emerges from happy hours or discussions about the latest big game. While these are helpful, the most powerful bonding occurs when teams work hard together, solving the thorny problem or dealing with the challenging customer issue. When people struggle together, grow together (through failure or success) and accomplish outcomes together, they feel more connected and also more fulfilled. Virtual collaboration contributes to this, of course, but the in-person opportunity for this kind of mutual work is also something the office must provide.
#3 – The Office must offer the opportunity for engagement and productivity
It’s also important to know there is a spillover effect in engagement and productivity. The bandwagon dynamic is the sociological concept which explains how we tend to be energized by each other. Being in the office is a powerful reminder for people of how they are in it together, and share mutual goals to create a great new product or serve customers in innovative ways. When coworkers are engaged, those around them tend to be energized, in turn. Being alongside coworkers and digging into meaningful work contributes to happiness and wellbeing—instead of the isolation which can result in demotivation or even mental health challenges.
Productivity is also enhanced by spillover. When people are working hard and getting results, these experiences tend to carry over to others in the workplace—creating a positive cycle of energy, stimulation and effectiveness. People have an instinct to matter—to express their skills and make a contribution, so this engagement and productivity are good for people as much as they are good for organizations.
#4 – The Office must offer opportunities for learning and growth
Learning is another priority for today’s office. The most effective companies are the ones in which learning happens continually—both formally and informally. When learning is part of the experience, employees have a better experience and tend to be happier and more satisfied with their work. In addition, companies which learn, grow and adapt tend to deliver better products to customers and higher returns to shareholders.
Like so many other elements of work, learning can happen virtually and at a distance. But learning also benefits from face-to-face interaction. Being in a classroom, picking up on the nonverbals of the instructor or leaning over to a classmate to check in on whether the concept is clear—these enhance the learning experience. Learning also occurs informally when people can run into each other in the work café and ask the sensitive question or when the mentor can chat with a new employee on a break from the meeting and provide coaching. These elements of learning are key to the work experience and go beyond a purely social experience.
#5 – The Office must foster culture
The place sends cues about an organization’s purpose, what matters in an organization and what it values. When there are areas for collaboration or privacy, these send messages about valuing connection or individual effort. When offices display products, quarterly results or customer feedback, they reinforce an emphasis on value creation and impact. When they feature daylight, views or natural elements, they send messages about valuing wellbeing and the employee experience.
Through these kinds of messages, workplaces nudge behaviors, and the aggregate of individual behaviors are collective cultures. Clarity on an organization’s purpose and values also tend to create a greater sense of connection between people and their company. It’s easier to see and feel how the work contributes to the greater whole, and this fosters engagement, loyalty and retention.
Rather than limiting the workplace to a clubhouse, supporting a full range of work enriches the culture. And the variety of cues available reinforces norms and values which are fundamental to managing a culture with intention.
#6 – The Office must be a place for great work to happen
Too often, work is framed as something negative. If you believe the popular press, you could conclude the best parts of work are weekends and vacations. But this misses the fact that work is part of a full life and can be tremendously rewarding. All work has dignity because it contributes to the overall community. It is a venue for value—the place where people can apply their unique talents and know they matter. And work doesn’t have to be fancy—all kinds of work make contributions to society.
If the office is conceptualized as a place for being social—and if it’s just about kumbaya and coffee—it has the consequence of framing work as negative or somehow separate from the good times. In fact, working side-by-side can provide some of the best opportunities for getting to know colleagues, laughing together, struggling together and achieving outcomes together. A workplace where work happens isn’t a bad thing because work isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of a full life. Facilities which support great work are nothing to avoid—rather they are places to embrace and continuously improve.
#7 – And yes, The Office must be a place for socializing
In addition to all the other purposes for office, yes, the opportunity to socialize is also a fundamental part of work. People can work from home, shop from home, exercise at home and socialize from home. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. With distance in so many parts of life, the workplace has become one of the last places to connect regularly with others in person—and to feel a sense of community and belonging which are fundamental to our humanity and our wellbeing. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be an extrovert, but even introverts need some level of connectedness.
When people report the primary reason they want to come back to the office is to “socialize” they mean more than just standing around talking about the latest weather event, NFL game or community happening. People crave social connections which offer support and social fabric. They want to form relationships which give them the chance to learn from others, and also to share what they know in support of others. People want to build social capital—which helps them obtain advice, get things done and advance their careers.
Strong social ties contribute to effective work, because when people know each other better, they tend to follow up and follow through on their work. You know the person to whom your work is going, and you realize the value you create will make a difference to your colleague and their ability to be successful. Feeling a responsibility to each other—reciprocity—is part of being human and it tends to contribute to rewarding relationships at work.
When people have the opportunity to do all kinds of work in the office, they can build stronger social connections, which offer depth. Statistically, a majority of friendships come from working together—getting to know each other over time and over task. The office is a part of this process. When it draws people together to get work done, it can facilitate meaningful relationships. And this is a bigger deal than just chatting by the coffee pot.
The purposes for the office are shifting, for sure. And hybrid work is here to stay. Overall, the office needs to offer plenty of variety to support all kinds of work—from focusing and concentrating to learning, networking and collaborating. And yes, it needs to support connecting and socializing—for sure. The office must be a place where people can choose to do the types of work which work best for them—complimented by the work they do at home or away from the office.
The office must still be a place where work gets done and where people can bring their best and be supported in performing well—in making their contributions and expressing their talents. The office can’t be just about socializing. It must be more than a clubhouse. It must meet a wide range of needs, and it has much greater purposes to fulfill—so people can be fulfilled as well.