Since the early days of the pandemic, leaders repeatedly asked the question: when and how will we return to the office? Of course, public health and safety were top of mind, particularly the direct impact for staff and customers. Six months ago, when I first posed the question to the CEOs in my executive roundtable (see related article here), they acknowledged pride in how their teams were coping. Worldwide, people have learned to live with the virus in our midst.
By now, we’ve seen some return of staff to retail stores, service businesses, production facilities, warehouses, and distribution centers. Other venues remain closed or at limited capacity. Yet, the future for shared workspaces and the typical, decades-old office structure remains unclear. Some companies have returned to their offices, albeit differently. Other name-brands like Amazon, Ford and Microsoft, continue to postpone the dates when they’ll welcome all staff to their office buildings. Meanwhile, Forbes and others report increased migration from big cities as a result of the coronavirus and widespread teleworking.
All of this suggests the office won’t look the same in the future. So, I asked CEOs again:
What if we don’t ever fully return to the office?
As with the first time I posed the question, the CEOs again focused on what work benefits most from being together. If we don’t ever fully return to the office, they’ve found three outcomes to be easier to achieve when done in person: customer intimacy, strategic thinking and organizational pulse. Each of these promotes shared learning, a broader organizational understanding, and new insights. Often, these activities feed on a variety of ideas and are nurtured by conversations that happen organically or are about seemingly unrelated topics. Let’s face it: proximity helps.
Rethinking the office requires rethinking relationships.
In the absence of casual conversations or serendipitous interactions – like running into somebody in the hall, at an event, or in the elevator – CEOs must be deliberate and decidedly less casual or opportunistic to cultivate relationships. Plus, we all value the perspective and connection from our relationships, as well as the efficiency of catching a ‘quick minute’ on the fly. This is why rethinking the office requires rethinking relationships.
As CEOs and executive teams think about the future office, perhaps consider these questions:
• What are the most important relationships (e.g. customers, staff, board, peers) for your business?
• What role does proximity play in cultivating those relationships?
• Who (or which functions) benefit most from being together? Why or to achieve what?
• How might you create space for spontaneous interactions?
• What other support structures do you need to share learning or make (personal or conceptual) connections?
We’ve learned a lot over the last year, including about the nature and value of our relationships and the role the office plays in cultivating them. Now, we have the opportunity to rethink the office. Do this in the context of your relationships – and possibly, unlock a whole new source of value.