The great big (and confusing) return to the office is beginning

Nobody knows what the office will look like. But people have really really strong opinions on what it should look like. 

Headquarters are a thing of the past. Employees must be in-person. It doesn’t matter where anyone works anymore. Large meeting rooms, not offices, are our future. 

The predictions are dizzying, conflicting—and confusing. Imagine the plight of workers trying to make decisions about homes, commutes, childcare and school districts right now. Even doctors and dentists, butchers and beauticians are chosen based on proximity and convenience to the office. Life basically happens on the way to work. But you are not alone if you still don’t know how often you will actually be there.

“The pandemic taught us there isn’t a rulebook on where employees can work. We can grow a company and operate together regardless of location. However, we know there are also many benefits to being in the same location. …We believe physical office space is important for high-growth companies,” said Chrissy Hand, senior vice president of operations at CoverMyMeds, a Columbus, Ohio, company that just spent $240 million on a new campus. “The importance of a shared collaboration space is especially true for knowledge workers who largely produce intangible things. For us, the office is the most favorable space to innovate.”

Some trends influencing the decision to return to an office, work from home or find something in between: 

How it started is how it’s going

Even younger companies, known for pivoting and reinventing themselves many times over, cling to what they looked like pre-pandemic. And what works for one company won’t work for all.

Chia-Lin Simmons founded LookyLoo, a fashion and shopping platform that relies on artificial intelligence, as a remote company. And that’s how it will remain. “We looked at the trend of the young millennial and older GenZ work surveys and it told us they valued flexibility in work locations and their time management,” she said. “We wanted to find the best people for each role for the needs of our company and that meant we would not let geographic boundaries be our limit.”

She also notes that she and her co-founder have decades of experience managing remotely and “know managing remote is not for every company or manager.”

“I live in the San Francisco East Bay and my co-founder in Silicon Valley, and we have always embraced the remote work experience,” she said. “We held meetings in workshare spaces, at each other’s homes, over good coffee. We also know we are just a call, WhatsApp or Zoom away, even if we’re at a different location.”

New employees and younger workers need the anchor of an office

The challenge of onboarding new talent in a pandemic has been a constant gripe—from both sides. 

“In the past year Tahora has noticed that 100% work from home is especially hard for new joiners,” said Michael Rose, co-founder of the London-based workplace engagement company. “It’s very hard to ramp up (for non developers) totally remotely.  Businesses have found they are hiring more senior level staff as a result—to avoid ramp-up challenges. As so much of development as a junior comes from osmosis, it’s been particularly hard on grads and college leavers trying to enter the marketplace.” (Note: At my startup, I allow interns and writers to eavesdrop on meetings and interviews, including some for this column.)

CoverMyMeds similarly wanted its new office to help ease transitions into and across the company. Its space is organized into “neighborhoods” and tries to create impromptu conversation spots in nooks and large hallways. “Space (in the form of an office) impacts one’s professional life—especially for those who are junior in their careers,” a spokesman said. 

For many of these companies, the workplace represents a meaningful entry into the company’s culture, which is at best hard and at worst impossible to convey virtually. 

Community and collaboration is everything. 

CoverMyMeds’ new office space is not just a place to work but also to connect with the community; Hand cites adult workforce development and youth STEM programs. 

More employees will emerge from the pandemic in search of greater purpose in their lives and work. Most entrepreneurs are anticipating experiments on how this stretches the ideas and confines of the physical workplace. Founder Dan Hunt of Compound Writing, a social network for writers, says the company’s office, to open next month “is unique in that it will function as a clubhouse for both our companies and members of our community.”

It’s not about working from home OR the office

Most of us knowledge workers are stuck in a bit of a binary choice: We plan to work from home or we plan to work from the office. 

Some startups are trying to create more options. Christian Södergren is the founder of Satchel, a Stockholm-based startup that allows companies to sublease unused office space. The shortest “rental” could be for a day but Södergren says his startup is about much more than the four walls, desk and key code you need to enter. More like-minded startups, not overt competitors but perhaps complementary business models, for example in financial technology or educational technology, want to work out of the same space to collaborate across companies. He also say he envisions companies offering staff many spots from which to work to avoid the binary. 

“Post-pandemic, a company might say, ‘Now let’s try hybrid instead.’ That can be dangerous because what often happens when you have some people in a headquarters and some people working from home is an A team and B team,” he said. “If you are not set up for asynchronous communication, you get into those information gaps.”

This idea of working from smaller, decentralized offices might also change the nature of vacations, he said. Perhaps they will book an Airbnb for the family and a separate workspace a few blocks away. “People will move around way more than they did,” he said. “Global travel will make room for work.”

Work must make room for self care in more obvious ways 

This video of the new CoverMyMeds’ space zooms in on “hydrobars” throughout (very fancy water fountains!). 

Activities such as ping-pong tables or game rooms don’t seem to have much of a home in new offices. But decompressing is still key. After a year of back-to-back Zoom calls and meetings, Jon Conelias says employees will not embrace monotony just because they are physically at work. The CEO of ReElivate, a virtual events marketplace, says longer meetings and offsites will need to mix things up with entertainment. For a 15-minute break, he suggests a class called “Yoga for People Who Work at their Desks.” 

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