Still Debating on Returning to the Office? Stop Focusing on the Place, Focus on the People

I’ve started going back to the office, and I love it. Even with a mask on, even with just 10 teammates scattered far apart across 400 desks.

When the pandemic hit, my company transitioned literally overnight to working from home. Two hundred people that used to come to the office five times a week were now working a few feet away from their bedroom. Yet after the initial shock, the transition didn’t seem all that hard. I might have thought the office was overrated after all at first, but over the past 18 months, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of in-office work aren’t all obvious, and I no longer take them for granted. We might not have understood what was at stake when we deserted our desks in March 2020, but today, I can’t wait to get back to the office.

Everyone’s announcing their big decisions: Apple recently asked employees to come back three days a week. Dropbox announced a virtual-first policy earlier this year. Google updated its remote work policy to allow hybrid work. There is debate about what’s the best solution, but I don’t think there is one. Companies that were forced into a rigid work structure before the pandemic now have the opportunity to decide what’s best for them. There might be as many answers as there are company cultures and organizational constraints. In the end, I trust that having more options is better for everyone.

Decisions don’t have to be permanent, either. In fact, they shouldn’t be: the best leaders I’ve met aren’t afraid to change their minds when a better path appears. The only bad decision would be to pretend that business should resume as usual and that nothing can be learned from the past year and a half. Such an opportunity to experiment with new ways of working might never come again: I want to make sure to not throw away this opportunity.

For my workplace, I know one thing for sure: the extreme of a fully remote company will not work for us in the long run. Having been forced to work from home, in almost total physical isolation from my coworkers for 18 months, it’s become clear to me that the short-term gains–saving money on office space, for instance–aren’t worth the downsides that come with it.

That’s why my company will switch to a hybrid model of work. This is in no way unique: once you reject both the fully remote model and going back to how things were pre-pandemic, the hybrid “model” is the only option on the table.

We’re opening the office now on a limited basis for people who want to come in, and most employees will be back in the office by January 2022. Employees will come in on the same days–Mondays Tuesdays and, likely, Wednesdays–so that we can maximize live meeting times, keep lively energy across the team and allow for more social engagement. The office will be open the rest of the week, with no obligation for anyone to show up. Some teams–a very small amount–will be fully remote, as an exception: customer support and certain engineering teams. We’ve chosen these because for their areas of focus, cross-functional collaboration is less central and more easily done asynchronously.

So, that said, why am I keeping the office around?

Engagement increases in the office

I’ve been the CEO of Front for over seven years now, and I’ve noticed that employees, myself included, are more engaged in their work when they get three things out of it: First, when they’re contributing to a worthwhile mission. The office provides a great way to see how all the parts of the company come together. Without it, the company’s mission can remain very abstract, or even get lost altogether when you’re exclusively focused on your individual role.

Second, when they feel a genuine sense of belonging to a group of peers. This one is the most obvious one: meeting your coworkers, even when you’re not directly collaborating with them on a specific project, whether it’s to share a meal, exchange jokes or personal news, that’s how you build trust with each other.

And finally, when they have a great manager who’s looking after them. Online surveys are important, but being able to check in on someone regularly and in-person is critical to pick up on tiny signals that would have been completely lost over Zoom. This is even more important when having difficult conversations: there’s only so much comforting you can do over video.

Good collaboration beats individual ability

A common argument I hear for going remote-first is that companies hope it’ll allow them to hire the best talent, wherever they’re located. I think this is a narrow view of what talent is and how it’s put to good use. I firmly believe that it’s better to hire people in the top 10 percent of the global pool and make them work well together than to go after the top 1 percent if they will then struggle to collaborate efficiently across many miles and timezones. Technology does help people collaborate across long distances, but regular face-to-face time, planned or not, is still unmatched today to enable a team to move as one.

A physical location is important for rituals and culture

I’ve always been obsessed with growing company culture at Front, and the office is where that all begins. From building LEGOs in the evening to the early-morning bustle before All Hands, our culture is a direct product of people coming together–and the office is where that happens.

In a PwC study, 87 percent of workers agreed that the office is important for working together with teammates and building relationships, even if they enjoy being remote the majority of the time.

Serendipity is underrated

Think about all the useful conversations you’ve had in your work life. Were they all penciled in on your calendar? Probably not. Spontaneous collaboration is powerful and hard to replicate digitally. Unplanned, fortunate discoveries remain out of reach when every single interaction comes with its own calendar invite, a strict number of participants and a set agenda.

Pixar’s legendary office design is a great example. They brought editors, executives, and animators together in the same office instead of separating experts from different domains. The goal was to increase creativity and collaboration by allowing people to be near each other and interact during the workday.

Work will look different

The office will still play a critical role for successful companies, but its role will change to become a more intentional place for collaborative and creative work, and happy employees.

I predict two main ways work will change for the better. The first is that to stay efficient, teams will need to rely more on asynchronous communication–methods that allow for you to receive and handle messages on your own time, like email for instance. I predict this for several reasons: Zoom fatigue is very real, and with digital transformation, we will only have more software and more pings. Constant interruptions from synchronous communication like live chat, phone, or video won’t scale. We will need more focused time.

The second change is that companies will need to have more flexibility. The rigid Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 schedule doesn’t meet the diverse needs of employees. People work best when they have the flexibility to organize their work autonomously, and employees will go to employers who will give them this flexibility. On the other hand, with more digital communication and an always-on world, it’s easier than ever to never stop working: it’s up to leaders to design a workplace that allows employees to work without burning out.

To get ahead of this, my workplace is experimenting with giving employees more flexible time each week. Friday is now a “no-meeting” day, and employees aren’t expected to reply to emails or chats. They can spend it focused on work, free of obligation from pings, or doing whatever they need for their own health and happiness.

The office brings you together

Remember those awkward Zoom “happy hours” at the beginning of the pandemic, that just felt like mandatory fun? There are some things Zoom just can’t replace.

The office is where people come together, find a sense of belonging, and make great ideas happen, which is what makes a company stand out. But in even simpler terms, the office is a place that isn’t home, where you can meet new people, make friends and have a good time.

Something that we lost during the pandemic, and that is very dear to me as a European, is the “spur of the moment” drinks with coworkers at the end of the day. Being in the same place at the same time lowers the barrier for having this kind of impromptu gathering. Today, people have fewer friends than ever, and I’ll do whatever I can as an employer to reverse this trend.

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