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Returning to the office—a question of when or why?

Written By Jon Budington

April 15, 2021

I’m assuming that one day I’ll have grandchildren. I can imagine telling a story about my old work experiences. “Yes, we once drove to a large centralized building called the office. We would unplug our home workstations, put them in the car with us and then plug them back in when we arrived. We would spend hours doing the drives to and from the office, and as everyone in the city worked the same hours, we sat in daily traffic jams; we called it ‘rush hour.’ Once we made it into the office, we would use headphones to drown out the noise of our coworkers. Back then, this was the only way to get face time with peers, experience company culture and, most importantly, prove we were actually working.” 

This story will sound crazy to our grandchildren—almost as crazy as random people in cars throwing bags of news onto our front yards as we slept. But even I think of my current “work from home” situation as temporary. I’ve grown comfortable with a routine that I attribute to COVID. But I’m vaccinated, I eat indoors at restaurants, and I’m beginning to plan some travel. Why does the future of the office continue to be a mystery?

A visit to the old office this week. It isn’t what it used to be, and it shouldn’t be.

Most “future of office work” predictions have left me uninspired. Some are talking about a hybrid approach, with percentages of time spent in office and at home. Ironically, this name is shared with a bicycle design for those who can’t decide if they ride mostly on roads or mountain trails. It provides suboptimal performance in both instances. It seems planning for the what and how of returning to the office is much easier than the why.

Other businesses seem eager to abandon their work spaces and move to a fully remote work environment. I’m not yet convinced, however, that millions of dollars spent on rent were a complete waste. Did we get nothing from working together? Was office life really that bad? 

Our fading memories of office work have been reduced to a collection of myths, assumptions, and untruths on both sides of the office/no office debate. I thought it would be helpful to anecdotally examine some of those here. 

Zoom cannot replace good old fashioned office face time. I believe this is false. The ability to pull together a small group to collaborate on a proposal or idea has never been easier. Many at More Vang believe they hear from me more often now that we’ve adopted this new platform. Has anyone claimed that technologies like Facebook or Instagram make them feel less connected to their friends and family?

The commute to work provided a mental reset for transitioning between home and work. Also false. Commuting offered little value to my day. Outside of dedicated time for podcasts and some NPR radio segments, I don’t remember the drives as anything but a waste of time. 

People are more distracted and less productive when working from home. The answer here is less obvious. Many of our staff have been more productive while working from home. Young families with small children at home (hopefully a temporary situation as schools reopen) have faced more challenges. I think the biggest change for all of us has been the structure of the day. Many have adjusted their schedules to work around distractions and parental requirements. At no time have we assumed that working from home meant doing less work. In most cases, flexibility has increased productivity.

Onboarding new employees is impossible in a remote environment. Time will tell on this claim. Our process for onboarding new employees has always seemed inefficient, and performing this task remotely has only amplified the challenges. But during COVID, we’ve hired and onboarded new staff members who have no plans to move to the area, let alone come to the office. Remote work has increased our ability to attract talented workers. How well we retain these employees is to be determined.

You might assume these opinions place me squarely in the “no office” camp, but that would be incorrect. We have concepts that need to be fleshed out on the whiteboard. We need to train and teach our workforce about new products and services. We need to develop the personal relationships that make work more rewarding. All of this is most efficiently done in person. We need the office, but not for the work we once did there. 

My grandmother once told me that it’s much easier to describe what we don’t like than envision what we do. Future in-person work will be designed around purposeful interactions. Our office, company policies and management practices need to evolve to this new way of working. Exactly how is difficult to see right now.