A Post-COVID Office
The design of the "office" has changed significantly over the past 30 years. We have had cubicles and open concept offices. But a centralized workspace has always been the norm. COVID-19 added a new dimension. It forced many office workers online. And offices emptied out. When productivity levels remain high while workers are at home, what does that signify for the central office? Steve Polo sat down with WTCI after joining an AGILE Global Innovation Series panel to discuss the trends he's seeing in the workplace.
WTCI: What are you seeing more of – a return to the office or a shift towards remote work? What is the predominant view?
Steve: The predominant view is more towards remote work. I think that, to use a sort of tired phrase, the genie is never going to get put back in the bottle. Prior to the pandemic, when people came to look for a job,one of the first questions they would ask was, “What’s your remote work policy?” And that was before the pandemic.
So this wave was building. There’s no way we could have anticipated it would’ve gone completely remote. But I just don’t think people are going to go back. It’s going to cause some tension for a while, and it already has, but I think the days where we’re spending 40 hours in the office are gone forever.
I think that 40 hour, nine to five, was a construct anyway. A friend of mine said, be careful what you learn to live with because you can learn to live with anything. And so I think we have learned to live with stuff because that’s what we expect to see when it happens. When you grew up, your mom and dad worked 40 hours in the office. That’s just what you eventually did, and you didn’t question it. And actually you worked more than 40 hours in some circumstances. But you were not working at your job all 40 hours you were sitting at your desk. That’s not possible.
WTCI: You said the 40 hour, nine to five work week was a construct. When we are looking at these jobs now with this kind of flexibility to work early in the morning or late at night,do you think that 40 hours expands to fill that space? Or is that a personal decision?
Steve: It’ll be required on the part of individual people in their jobs to be more disciplined in what they do. And there’s danger on either end. I’m not doing exactly what I would do if I were sitting next to my colleagues. Or because I can’t separate my house from my work, I’m going to keep working. If you’re really excited about your job, you may be susceptible to working way more than you might have if you were in the office. And that’s going to contribute to people burning out. We have to be mindful of that.
We actually have to be more mindful of that than people not doing their work. Look, you can tell if people are doing their work. And if you can’t, you’re not measuring the right thing. Either the stuff gets done and you meet deadlines, or it doesn’t. It seems like that’s the kind of stuff you need to pay attention to. You say you’re going to do something for your customers and your clients and you have to do it. Does it get done?
WTCI: You’ve mentioned that the desire to work in the office is like a dumbbell. There are two ends. On one end are younger employees entering the workforce and older employees used to office culture, all who are excited about being in the office. On the other end are mid-career employees who likely have a family and, therefore, are more interested in remote work. Does that change as that middle group ages up?
Steve: If you’re used to something it’s hard to change. So if that middle group gets used to that flexibility, they’re not going to want to go back to the fixed office. They’ll start to manage their lives in a way that doesn’t require that anymore.
Having said all that, I heard someone talk about the necessity of people finding a place for the office in their business and personal lives. That is different than saying the office is the center of that business life. It may just be one of the many platforms. As the generations age, the older generation used to the fixed office will have far less influence than the ones who haven’t lived in offices and may not want to. All of that being said, I think the overlay is that everyone more or less likes the flexibility. The challenge is how to manage it. Because people don’t know how to do that yet. Not effectively.
I don’t know if the middle group would move up or move to one end of the dumbbell. My guess is they’d want the flexibility they’ve experienced over the last two or three years, and likely would persist. The younger folks, they still have an overlay of the flexibility because they still want both. They want to experience the office as a cultural phenomenon, and then they want the flexibility of managing their work and personal lives as one. So the dumbbell model will probably fade.
WTCI: It feels like we are at a flux point when you look at all of the things that are happening around work. We are seeing renewed interest in unions at retail stores. We have the Great Resignation, which, for some, became the Great Regret. And there’s this uncertainty. What are you optimistic about right now?
Steve: Certainly not in my career and maybe never have we been in a place where we have the biggest opportunity to redefine what it means to work. It’s gigantic, and we can’t squander it. The pandemic was a horrible, horrible thing. But it happened, and because it happened, it caused other things to sort of explode and come apart. So there’s momentary chaos, but the opportunity to redefine what it means to do your job, to manage your work and your life and your family. To think about, 40 years from now saying, “How come I spent 40 years sitting at a desk, punching a button?”
Rather than worry about whether people are sitting at their desks and doing their jobs, let’s figure out how to create an environment where we inspire them to do their best work because they want to. People don’t work for your reasons. They work for theirs. So let’s figure out how we can mesh the reasons we do work at all and for what end.
So for me, work won’t be a place anymore. It’ll be a series of platforms. So we get a chance to do that. And we get a chance to take these ideas from all these energetic young people and start to test them against what we used to think was true and really isn’t anymore. I’m so much more optimistic about the future than I might have been 10 years ago when you kind of knew the path.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Managing Partner, OPX
Steve Polo is the Managing Partner at OPX, a design consultancy in Washington, D.C., whose mission is to help good companies work better. A recognized thought-leader, facilitator, speaker, panelist and educator, Polo has pioneered a new way of looking at organizations, operations, culture, and performance through the development of the analysis process called the Integrated Operating Environment, or IOE.