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Back to the office. What am I missing?

Written By Jon Budington

October 30, 2020

I did something strange on Wednesday. I woke up, took a shower and drove to the office. The traffic was light, and many of the construction projects I once cursed have been wrapped up. It was a pleasant and familiar experience in a strange new world. The office was as I left it, although a bit quieter. I settled into my old chair, opened up my laptop and thought, what am I doing here?

It’s odd to think we began this journey not sure if we could remain open during the original business shutdowns, holding Zoom happy hour calls to check in on everyone. COVID certainly created some questions and workflow challenges for us, but as those early weeks have become months, I’ve been humbled by the resilience of our workforce and their ability to adopt the new technologies we now depend on for running many business functions. I don’t know that we’ve ever operated this efficiently, and I have little interest in going back to our old ways.

Like so many businesses, we spent the last decade building casual wardrobes and knocking down walls to open up our space. The “new office” was dynamic and transparent. And I almost forgot, it was loud. Our conference rooms were overbooked for complex work that required focus, and everyone began wearing noise cancelling headphones to drown out the din. We essentially created a giant Starbucks minus the good coffee.

More Vang staff in typical business casual attire – Halloween ‘18

Our work days required too many meetings and quick “check-ins,” otherwise known as meetings in the open spaces, driving new requests for noise cancelling headphones. We all dutifully handled a series of “essential” but focus-sucking business tasks; not one of which seemed worth the trouble to fix, but collectively they added up to a significant portion of the day. And yes, we had amassed an arsenal of half-implemented tools to address those tasks that never lived up to expectations. The office grass wasn’t all that green.

COVID changed everything. We fully transitioned internal communications to Slack, using the old school email format primarily for client communication (and I see that changing soon as well). Our new virtual working groups—where schedules, documents and commentary are all visible—allow for quick transition into unscheduled video discussions when needed. Every Friday, I hold a company-wide virtual town hall. I heard from one employee that they see me more now than when I was regularly in the office.

So, back to my opening question, what do I miss? Plenty actually. Online meetings produce a series of presentations, not conversations. New ideas require a dialogue with multiple perspectives flowing freely onto the whiteboard. COVID isn’t going away anytime soon; I recently heard an estimate for social distancing through early 2022. So while the technology and solitude is helping us all be more efficient, it isn’t helping us with new ideas. And as I’ve stated in many of these posts, the future of our businesses will depend on our ability to evolve our old models to the new normal. That kind of creativity requires face time.

Damn, I miss my 8’ whiteboard

As I walked around the office this week, I saw past the flaws and imperfections and began planning for our return. We’ll need less conference rooms and fewer walls. The whole point of coming back will be to work on new ideas together—hackathons for new software features, marketing meetings for our evolving brand, team building exercises for new hires and interns. We’re going to need comfortable space and some small private offices for those who can’t find solitude at home. And once our ideas become plans, we’ll clear out for the next group and return to our COVID-created efficient home offices. This pandemic is going to force a 21st century work environment on us, and it’s going to be better—more flexible, less wasted time and eventually, better social interactions.