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The Highly Scrutinized “Back to the Office” Question
What does ‘back to the office’ look like?
When COVID-19 went global and work-from-home became commonplace, one of the questions being most widely discussed and debated is “What will ‘back to the office’ eventually look like post-pandemic?” Publications from Forbes to the Wall Street Journal, from the BBC to the Washington Post have interviewed employees and CEOs, landlords and tenants. Multiple studies are underway to evaluate what the future may hold for “work.”
The answer to the back-to-work question seems to be that we can’t paint it with a broad brush. Some form of returning to the office will take shape for most businesses (Netflix, Marriott). A few will make the call to stay totally remote (Twitter). But, the best solution, as Forbes contributing writer Grant Freeland predicts, is the practice of a hybrid of the two in some fashion.
While many have identified the benefits of working from home – more flexibility, no commute, and you can work in pajamas – what are we giving up? What are the sometimes-hidden downsides of working solo from our living rooms? Many professionals, both employees and CEOs, as well as experts from a range of fields have weighed in – and it seems to illustrate why Freeland’s proposal will be the most enduring option. Offices will still be important, post COVID, once it’s safe to go back into the office. Here are some solid reasons having an office to go to remains essential to the health of businesses.
Employees miss going into the office and seeing people in-person.
Recently, Ester Perel (relationship expert and world famous couples’ counselor) said in an interview on the Podcast “Sway” with Kara Swisher, that we are not appreciating the impact on the emotional state of our employees. “Everything that touches on the interpersonal, people are seeing the effects of the lack thereof… we understand that you cannot replace in-person…. you get exhausted on Zoom. Partly because I think I’m looking at you but I’m actually not. We can’t have eye contact.” That type of connection, she suggests, can only happen in person. And it’s those connections that help us maintain a positive mental and emotional well-being.
A woman interviewed in Warsaw, Poland, Joanna Pyrak, in a recent article by the BBC says she misses her coworkers. This was a common thread among those that would like to go back into an office setting post-COVID.
Employees don’t want to wake up and be at the office. They need separation.
In the BBC study, one of those surveyed said, “living where you work and working where you live is difficult. ‘Your workplace is all you wake up to, [so] it’s a great relief being able to wake up [and] not see work in front of you.’” Talk to any stay-at-home parent. They live where they work. It’s both hard to shut it off in the evenings and it can be very isolating. Wide-scale working from home has brought those challenges essentially to everyone.
CEOs believe we are more innovative at the office.
There are those that believe a cost of working from home is lost creativity and innovation. Apple founder Steve Jobs described it as the creativity that comes from serendipitous run-ins with colleagues, telling his biographer that “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”
Mural.ly did a survey of creative teams that were working remotely. 46% said they felt creativity suffered with this work model. “Communication suffers significantly, spontaneity is often lost, and lack of interpersonal relationships makes the work less stimulating.”4
CEOs believe we lose culture and personal connection working entirely from home.
Arne Sorenson, Marriott CEO believes strongly that “We can’t maintain our culture…we can’t invest in the kind of relationships we need to have with our business partners and with our customers.”
While Sorenson’s point is one of debate, here is an excerpt from the interview with Ester Perel on this topic that supports that idea.
[working from home] You do tasks. You can do projects. But can I walk with you to the coffee machine, and in between you say, “what are you working on?” And I say something, and I say, why don’t you come see me in my office for a second. And then suddenly I discovered that there is a whole other division in the company that I didn’t know of, and now you become my mentor.
So you cannot do those without being physically present?
No. Because the meetings are stilted. We are sitting here on this screen, we only see half bodies. And then we basically close and we go into the next one, into the next one. We can accomplish things. It’s not like we can’t. But task is only one portion of what happens at work.
The cost savings by reducing leased Ann Arbor office space is short-sighted.
Jeff Hauptman, CEO of Oxford Companies, the largest commercial landlord in Ann Arbor, has a similar prediction to Perel & Sorenson. And this longer-term impact to culture can be clouded by the more immediate one on the bottom line. “Enough CEOs will use this as an opportunity to cut occupancy costs in the short term that the Ann Arbor office market will really feel the pinch. The CEOs will argue that productivity is good and they’re not only saving on leasing costs but also saving on maintaining the office (furniture, copiers, coffee, hand sanitizer… you name it). Later, they will realize that it is hurting culture, productivity, mentoring, etc. …it’s challenging to be loyal to a team you’ve never met in person.” An impact of a loss of loyalty, beyond the quality of work, and a costly one at that, is turnover. Hiring is expensive and when neither the employee nor the manager feel an interpersonal connection, both feel more replaceable.
Complementary industries will feel the impact.
Are we ready to see thousands of small business owners in our communities suffer? Across the country, local business owners, as Hauptman mentioned, “feel the pinch” when roads are empty and retail and real estate go quiet? Sorenson of Marriott wrote in an article on LinkedIn:
Beyond that missed collaboration, our local communities are also taking a hit… Lunch spots, gas stations, dry cleaners, florists and coffee shops are just a few examples of the many small businesses that depend on the office worker for their livelihoods.
So while there’s a belief that telecommuting is the way of the future, we can’t just blanket the entire ecosystem with one solution. So, as laid out here, there are many reasons you may want to hesitate keeping everyone completely remote, once it’s safe to go back into the office. COVID-19 has certainly forced us to look at the many forms that could possibly take shape and thrive, and should, according to Freedland of Forbes. CEO’s, building owners and small retailers with the will to adapt and provide a product that fulfills the new demand can thrive as we move into this era of modern day ‘back to the office.’ But ‘back to the office’ it should be.
What does your business need? Oxford is willing to listen as we look to the future and rethink how we provide commercial rental space to our customers. For more information on Ann Arbor opportunities, find us at www.oxfordcompanies.com.
Melissa Gumenick is Oxford Companies’ Associate Director of Business Development.