As organizations face big questions about whether and how to return to physical offices as the pandemic subsides, the symbolism of the “water cooler” has captured executives’ attention like never before. (Honestly, the last time I thought this much about a water cooler was during my high school football practices in August).
The water cooler, of course, is our shared metaphor for the impromptu personal connections or “eureka” moments that can happen when we design spaces that encourage employees to share ideas and information. Yes, it’s a useful construct. Yet in this polarized moment, nearly every topic is at risk of turning into a divisive culture war—and the fraught invoking of the “water cooler” as a blanket rationale to send all employees back to their prior offices (with their old work hours) has become yet another example.
Far too often, work-from-home is being talked about as “all or nothing”, with some leaders even coming off as intransigent and threatening in their rush to end pandemic-era flexibility. Yet this is an unparalleled opportunity for transformation—and mission-driven leaders should not squander it. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t all need to spend 8+ consecutive hours at a desk in a corporate office building in order to effectively sustain our employers’ missions.
Needless to say, there will be exceptions to this rule. Yet we must strongly resist the lure of catch-all solutions that fail to account for an operating and business environment that has dramatically changed since February 2020.
Realities to consider when charting a course for your post-pandemic workplace
Based on their unique competitive circumstances, each organization will chart a different path for transitioning into the post-pandemic workplace—navigating thorny issues like physical reporting arrangements, flextime, and workforce safety in their own ways. At the same time, it’s important for all organizations to keep a handful of key realities in mind.
Remote work, as most of us lived it last year, was not a set-up for flourishing. It was simply surviving through a global pandemic.
Regardless of whether you had significant experience managing a remote workforce before the pandemic, your organization’s struggles to sustain a healthy work culture this past year are completely normal and inevitable. Remember, this past year is not representative of remote work under any definition of “normal”. It was an example of keeping our heads barely above water (and our organizations solvent) during an experience of collective trauma.
So, if you struggled to make your organizational culture sing in these circumstances, don’t read this as a definitive indictment of remote work writ large. Employees will not be homeschooling their children forever. Supportive routines will slowly return for all of us. And, should you choose to explore them, there are many opportunities to improve and optimize remote working arrangements that don’t require a complete shift to office-based reporting.
The serendipity and informal connection that we associate with the physical “water cooler” was often overrated—and it can largely be replicated virtually.
I believe we have overly romanticized the water cooler. In my experience, there has never been a water cooler or “coffee machine” moment that sparked a genuine epiphany or changed the space-time continuum—at least not in the way now being lauded by some. Like many other office dwellers, in my time before PTKO, I was in and out of meeting rooms all day, trying to keep up with emails on a mobile device, hoping nothing went wrong by 5pm so that I could dive into “real work” at home without being distracted. And I say this as an undeniable extrovert.
Of course, periodically seeing each other in person is important. It helps strengthen relationships and greases the wheels of collaboration (particularly for new hires and new clients, in our case). Also, as a frequent facilitator, I attest to an intangible power in gathering colleagues around a table to bounce ideas around. Yet there’s no reason any of this needs to happen every day. And, with the right structure remote brainstorming is also effective.
In our new normal, there’s an opportunity for in-person experiences to be far more tactical and focused than merely hanging out together in the office. When my colleagues and I travel to client sites as a team, for example, our work is tightly organized for maximum results, without the same plethora of personal distractions we’ve taken for granted in the past year. Likewise, when we gather together as a company, our purpose is sharp and clear: we are there to celebrate the team and use our collective time to disengage from the daily operations of the company and open up the power of the braintrust and get creative.
Furthermore, the “water cooler” construct misses the fact that organizations can design experiences and systems that facilitate meaningful connection between employees across physical locations and boundaries. It just takes intention and a willingness to listen and experiment. Serendipity is often a result of proper placement ahead of time and being able to see things differently when a moment arrives. Remote staff still need to be accountable and they still need to attend to personal relationships in the company–having a “how you doing connection and conversation” is all good on company time in an office–but when it is in a remote setting we tend to equate this to a “meeting” and we then start to wonder if we have a meeting culture problem–however if you went to lunch with some colleagues outside the office you would not think about this as a meeting–we need to adapt our thinking. For me this eureka moment occurred in our early days as a company, when we realized we needed to be explicit with our new and growing staff about what we meant by over communicating and that it is absolutely OK to hop on a zoom and talk with your colleagues–and even better spend some co-working time, together.
Organizations with strong cultures will be able to attract the right people, no matter which operational model they choose.
Attracting and retaining top talent is pivotal in order to power the growth of our organizations in the months and years ahead. We are inherently social creatures; we enjoy working together towards goals that matter and we often derive purpose from doing the work to meet these goals–there is a joy in creating. So we need to stop worrying about whether we will be able to hire people and have them get the work done if we are not staring down the hall at them. You and they will, together, put the effort in to reach your targets if you build the right environment for a flourishing culture—one with trust, safety, inclusion, equity, and the ability for all employees to be supported when they need it.
The good news? No single operational model has a monopoly on making these happen.
Still, there are indications that employers with flexible working arrangements will enjoy at least some advantages in the talent marketplace. According to a recent Microsoft survey, 73% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue beyond the pandemic—to the extent that high performers come to expect and demand flexibility when shifting jobs, employers will be increasingly pressured to oblige. Moreover, workplace flexibility gives organizations access to a larger, more diverse talent pool. For example, they can hire people from underrepresented groups who may not live in a big city, as well as working parents who may not be willing or able to do a rigid 9-to-5 commute to the office each day.
Yes, some managers miss being able to keep tabs on employees in the office—but if your organization has hired well, this shouldn’t matter.
Let’s be clear: as managers, we shouldn’t be evaluating our employees based on presence in an office, but on how well they get the job done. Indeed, it’s long past time to do away with presenteeism—forcing staff to physically sit in a chair in order to give the appearance of being dedicated (no matter the impact on their families or their wellbeing).
If your organization has survived the economic slump of the pandemic, you likely already have a team of high functioning, productive individuals. Do they need to be stared at while they field calls, run meetings, or pump out spreadsheets or Word documents? Your employees are going to be productive, or not. Where they sit has little to no influence on that.
No doubt, navigating the post-pandemic world will be hard. Some staff members may not be able to make the shifts required. If you have remote employees who are not showing up, not reaching out, and not being present (i.e. actively participating in remote meetings and calls), it’s tempting to think that watching them at their desk will make the difference. Yet their disengagement may be due to any number of factors, both personal and professional in nature. Assuming the core factor is insufficient physical supervision is overly simplistic. And a company-wide mandate to return to the physical office is an inappropriately blunt response to individual employees’ performance issues. Instead, consider a concerted effort to re-establish clear performance expectations for these staff, communicate often, monitor results, and provide support and training as needed.
After a year of extreme uncertainty and discomfort, emotional nostalgia for a simpler era of work is completely understandable. Some of us (though certainly not all) miss the camaraderie and connection that came with working alongside other colleagues in a physical office. At the same time, we’re in the middle of a fundamental paradigm shift on how work gets done—one that’s unlikely to end anytime soon.
The times have changed dramatically, as have our employees’ needs, capabilities, and expectations. Even before the pandemic, the hard truth is that most organizations had not rethought or re-imagined their work day in a very long time. Many were already overdue for an evolution (if not a complete transformation) of their business operations. The current moment offers exactly this opportunity. We should be careful not to waste it in a desire for “one-size-fits-all” directives that prioritize outdated assumptions.
We have witnessed remarkable innovation, creativity and strength in the mission-driven sector this past year. Let’s build upon it, and set a big, bold vision for what 21st-century operations look like at our organizations. In doing this, we can consolidate and expand what we’ve learned works well during the pandemic, and use data and sensory information to steer around the existing challenges with remote work. But, please—let’s not throw out the champagne with the cork.