I had an interesting debate with a good friend over lunch recently about remote working. He is firm believer that working from an office is more preferable and productive than working remotely. Considering I haven’t set foot in my office ever, I started my current job in the summer of 2020, I take a different view.
He posed an interesting thought experiment: imagine it’s possible to remove all friction from the process of getting to the office. All of us could have access to a transporter, like the ones on Star Trek, that would eliminate the hassles of commuting. In such a world all one would have to do is get dressed, walk to their home transporter and, “poof”, like magic arrive immediately at their place of work. He argued that even the most diehard fan of remote working would choose to go to the office every day because, in his view, working in an office is inherently superior.
This friend, who I’ve known since we were kids, is very smart and a great guy but has an annoying tendency to think that anyone who doesn’t see things his way isn’t thinking clearly. And he works in an industry known for its deep rooted, macho culture of equating long hours in the office with commitment and dedication to the job.
But putting that aside, it is an interesting question. If you could remove the friction of the commute, would you go to an office every day to work?
As someone who has spent far too much of my life on trains and planes, the silver lining of the pandemic has been the opportunity to discover how productive and rewarding remote work can be. I realize this isn’t true for all jobs, but for someone in my field the pandemic experience has convincingly demonstrated that it’s possible to work effectively outside of the office.
However, back to our thought experiment, would I feel differently if I had a transporter? My friend’s argument is that years of long commutes has left me scarred and blinded to the irreplaceable experience of working in an office.
I suppose there’s some truth to this. It’s possible that I have a lingering, latent case of “commuting PTSD” that causes me to devalue the role of an office.
But as I thought about it, I’ve concluded that even if Commander Montgomery Scott was waiting for me each morning in my personal transporter room, I still would not go to the office every day. Not because of my past commuting experience, but because the past 18 months have changed my view on the role of an office in work.
With a transporter I would opt to do more group meetings in the office. While Zooms are great, there is still no substitute for being in the same room together. And both as a father of young professionals and someone who manages people just starting their careers, I think the added face time is critical for the more junior people. To me, early in your career the people you meet and your ability to expand your network are sources of far more long-term value than your current salary.
But where I differ from my friend is that the removal of the travel friction opens entirely new possibilities. How about doing 1:1s at a café in Paris or Barcelona? Or a team dinner in Maui? If there was no friction, I would leave the office as soon as my meetings were over. There is no point sitting in an office to answer email or just to be “seen” in my view. The notion of the random hallway encounters as an essential component of culture is more mythology than reality to me.
Offices in the post pandemic world are no longer all-encompassing places of work. They are best suited for specific types of collaborative work. Of course, unlike my good friend, I understand that not everyone comes to the same conclusions under the same circumstances. For some people, it’s easier to concentrate or perform at an office, even when doing solo work. To each his own I say.
This is an important issue that many of us are wrestling with as we seem to be entering a new, more manageable phase of the pandemic. To me, reinventing the role of the office post pandemic is a wholly unexpected but exciting opportunity. Despite the monumental technology advancements, prior to Covid very few companies bothered to question the traditional construct of office work which in reality hadn’t changed much since the dawn of the industrial age.
For what it’s worth, I hope companies lean into giving as much choice and flexibility to roles where being in the office isn’t a necessity. Treat employees like adults. Give them a real voice in where and how they will work. True professionals understand that responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. We want to reclaim what we’ve lost from not being in our offices, but not at the expense of what we’ve gained.
In the meantime, where do I sign up for the transporter? “Scotty, the office, energize!”