Turning Office From an Obligation into a Destination

Office matters. It represents the DNA of an organization. Office spaces facilitate different forms of work, and are oftentimes designed to increase productivity, collaboration, and the feeling of togetherness. Not so long-ago workers could only choose to be seated near a window or next to a conference room. In recent years, the office facilities have become much more diverse. You can choose to work out of a chilled lounge area, or in a well-equipped kitchen with a coffee machine, endless chocolate chip cookies and funky bar stools. Industry after industry would use office spaces to entice workers into staying at work longer hours. Why would you go home if everything you may wish for is here, in the office, within reach? There is no need to go elsewhere, especially not home.

Now suddenly there is a new office: the hybrid office. It emerged as a jigsaw puzzle of locations people would work from, sequentially: office, home, shared workplaces and other spaces that emerging at the speed of light, helping employees to find a solution for an office close to home. As this happens, organizations start to feel that it becomes more difficult to shape the physical encounter experience of work. How do we ensure these new workplaces l allow for the same level of productivity, collaboration and connectedness? What do we need to do to encourage our employees to choose the company office over all the rapidly emerging alternatives?

But do we even need offices?

Opinions split. Those who support working from home claim that an office is no longer needed, and the alternatives are more than enough. Those who believe the office is important claim that this is where we create our social capital. Either way, up until now the office has been the beating heart of every organization, reflecting its brand and its culture. No wonder after two years, without the office, we feel like a dispersed, drifting group of individuals, connected only by the thin threads of a company name and remnants of past connections.

There is a lesson to be learned here. We may think that absorbing the organizational language and shared values from spending time together with others during a workday is replaceable, but is it? It’s not just about the casual conversations between meetings. We lack the connection that occurs while facing a challenge and overcoming it together. Those are the events and experiences that give an organization its power. In the last two years, that experience has happened at a distance and the camaraderie created while working with others suffered from a severe quake. And no, even Zoom can’t mend it.

Therefore, it’s important to build a working environment that people would want to be in for at least a few days a week. An office that connects people in new ways, not just a place to complete tasks. A working space that is not only an office, but also a destination. Like going on a vacation to a secluded island: one that takes more effort to get to but is well worth the while.

The way to address this challenge depends on the nature of your organization, your organizational culture, and possibly most of all on the mindset of the leadership. Here are some questions to consider while in the process:

Location, location, location

One location or maybe a few? Multi-city or one place for all? Workers want to spend less time commuting and organizations seek to reduce costs. This big question has many answers.

Let’s take a quick look at the big tech companies and their real-estate biz. Google just spent $1 billion on an office building in London, and $2 billion on a similar building in New York. Amazon also purchased an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York from WeWork for $1 billion. A prime location, no doubt! Meta, Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet purchased 43 assets in 2021 alone: office spaces, data and distribution centers as well as stores. Of course, not all of these acquisitions are related to the matters of future offices. Clearly, to a certain extent these decisions were driven by low prime rates and attractive prices of these real estate locations. Yet one can learn a lot from the locations these companies picked. Together with prime locations, high tech giants purchased numerous satellite offices in more remote locations – purchasing decisions that were probably done in response to movement of employees into cheaper residential areas during the past two years of remote work.

15 minutes from home” is the name of a new trend that brings high standard offices to locations people want to reside in, instead of bringing people to the big city. The idea behind this trend is that some people want to live in big cities, others prefer quieter suburban areas. The hybrid office then becomes a spectrum of locations, where, on one end, we have a traditional headquarters setup and, on the other end, the home office. In between we see alternative solutions emerging, ones that enable employees to utilize the infrastructure of the organization as well as its social network, while enjoying the benefits and flexibility of being close to home. Not only do these hybrid office solutions allow employees access to the traditional benefits of the office, but they also provide them with the new option to just “stop by” at a shared office for a few hours without committing to a full day at the office routine. Win-win for everyone!

Design a destination

Design is so much more than just a composition. It’s a state of mind, it’s a look at life. Think about your favorite hotel or a resort, the places you pay good money to go to. That is the idea of how to turn the office into a destination. Making it a place people will want to go to even when it’s easier to stay at home.

The design of the new office should enhance the informal processes that used to happen in the “old” office: the conversations, the meetings, the mingling and ways to connect with coworkers in a meaningful way. The challenge here is to create a space that can support a variety of forms of collaborative work, to literally move the walls and flex the space and accommodate groups and meetings of different sizes and different shapes: round table conversations, creative board discussions, etc.. Google, for instance, is now designing offices with furniture that can be easily reshaped and even with inflatable walls that can change the size and shape of meeting rooms instantaneously. This is what you call an office that can adapt to the hybrid reality, including the various needs of each individual worker. Those who feel most comfortable behind a computer screen can still find a quiet corner in the cooperative office to escape the hustle and bustle.

So many ideas to make the workplace a fun place to go to by design. The offices need to enable an atmosphere of support, teamwork, and a sense of community. What once was only in social events and team building activities, nowadays needs to happen daily. Otherwise, no one will show up.

Technology to bridge the physical and the digital

The continuum between home and office will continue to grow with the growing connection between the physical world and the digital one. This is why you can expect part of the destination experience to rely on technology that will make our trip to work more rewarding. Imagine you drove into the office for meetings and an app or device lets you know who is in the office today. Imagine walls that alternate between a whiteboard and a screen or a space that can adjust to the perfect background, light, sound, and atmosphere according to the number of participants and nature of the meeting. Oh, and of course, a room that digitally summarizes everything that has been said and sends it all via email or chat or app. As a presentation, obviously!

There is a lot to look forward to. But in this process, it is important to remember that employees will need a good reason to get into traffic. And they don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility acquired while working from home. It’s not enough to just redesign the office. It’s vital to reorganize how we work within it. Shift the focus from presence to outcome, learn to build trust and communicate regardless of time and place. Until the day comes, when we’ll realize it doesn’t matter where we are, we know who we work with and most importantly – what for.

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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