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Can the history of the office teach us about the future of collaboration?

culture remote work

A few years ago, we had unseasonably heavy snowfall which more or less brought the whole country to a halt. A week later I visited a customer and of course we talked about how we worked the week before, how it took him ages to get to the office. I asked what they did those days “Oh we had no one come in, we fielded calls and email” and when I asked why they didn’t do that from home the answer was “we don’t – we work at the office”. 

After some more discussion the conclusion was they worked the way they did, because that’s how you do it. This got me thinking, are we using our offices in a certain way because “that’s how it’s done”? 

If you think back 20 years, the office was a gathering place of equipment and services, simply because it was too expensive or technically impossible to share or use them remotely.  

Think about a standard workday and break it up in pieces. You start the day by planning what to do, maybe your most creative/concentrated work first, meet some people, create a document, discuss with people in a remote office. Write down these building blocks and create an activity map of your day. 

For every activity you can now ask yourself if you need the office for it, what kind of space in the office would work best, or if you can do it remotely. You will find out that a large number of things you do by yourself are location independent or could be made location independent with very little effort. Activities you still need an office for are typically those requiring communication or collaboration with others. 

This is where matters get interesting. Do I really need to go to the office to huddle around a whiteboard and discuss ideas? The reason why a lot of people feel they need to be at the office for meetings and ideation is because including people who aren’t at the office is complex. If you don’t have proper collaboration tools you need to load software to connect to remote participants, point a camera in the right direction, share what you’re working on, take photos of the whiteboard, press buttons – a remote participant is a bother, not a first class participant. 

So, to get the first-class experience people choose to travel to the office, but why is this remote experience so complex? These days we have technological solutions to deliver amazing video, audio and screen sharing and there is more than enough bandwidth available wherever we are. We have the technology to use a collaboration device for local content sharing and whiteboarding and can connect a remote participant by pressing a single green button. So why do we still insist on going to office for a lot of what we do? The answer in a lot of organizations is “because that is how we always did it.” Technology enablement is there, but our thinking has simply not caught up yet. 

What can we learn? It’s not about doing away with the office; it’s about making the right investments for the future of work. The office is a great place where you run into people, have chance encounters next to the coffee machine and where a company can highlight its brand and values, but let’s do away with the office as a spot where people need to be 40 hours a week. If we create real estate with as much focus on remote experiences as we do on the actual building, remote attendees become first class participants and any new office won’t quickly become the same as the old office, but with nicer furniture. 

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