Have you noticed? The architectural evolution of offices tells a civilizational tale.
My mother worked in a public library. Even for that very public office, the staff had private chambers that they could retire to tend to work. Children of my generation assumed walls were a staple in offices. And that if you were a serious working adult, you’d even have a nameplate on the door as my Uncle did.
Around the time my elder brother started working in the 90s, I noticed the walls had lowered, with working adults hunkered down in front of a computer or a business machine. While you were still sort of expected to stay put and mind your own business, it seemed like it was okay, even encouraged, to peek outside yours.
When I worked at one of those cubicles much later, I took special care of my space - motivational quotes, sticky notes, and what-not; I even had a picture of Anne Bancroft staring down at me alluringly for additional motivation while selling recruitment services when it seemed the World was downsizing in 2008.
Somewhere along the way, it became the norm to work at what’s called a ‘Flat Office’, where, if fate willed you could share your desk on days with such diverse folks as the Building Manager or the CEO. You had access to whoever you wanted, almost, whenever you needed -- for better or for worse.
Today, I work out of our guest bedroom and interact with my colleagues many miles away through Email, Slack, and Zoom.
We’ve been lowering and then breaking down walls for a while now.
The current pandemic has accelerated what was already set in motion.
Openness, collaboration, whatever you wished for - they’re here now.
We’re also realizing now how much of the modern officer worker’s work was force-fitted into post-industrialization constraints. You see, it wasn’t just the offices that had to change, but the work itself. Digital workers should be digital-first, no? Considering we don’t have much of a choice now, how should we redesign work for 2020 and beyond?
Here is my humble proposal:
Talent beyond offices or borders
Speaking on my podcast (Bharatvaarta - India’s Economic Progress), Sridhar Vembu (Co-founder & CEO of Zoho) and Harsh Gupta (Economist, Author) made the broad point that if companies could move out of the Valley, then they could even move out of the US. In fact, Zoho has already expanded to Tenkasi, a rural town in South India.
How many of you will renew your leases post-COVID? While you may not completely rethink the prospects, it has crossed your mind. And so I pose another question to you - if you don’t, perhaps, need an office. Then why does someone have to be in the same country even? Are you prepared to hire talented engineers from Brazil or Indonesia? You should.
Independent contributors and purposeful managers
The time for folks who camp around in meeting rooms, orchestrating busywork, is all but over. This was a ticking time bomb anyway - an absurd over-redundancy that stayed longer than it should have. And I don’t mean “management work” as it’s come to be known as. We need good, “purposeful management” now more than ever. Just not more busywork.
The trial by fire for all managers is - can your team operate independently? Do they know what principles are obvious when they have to make a difficult decision without you in the room? If they can’t, then you need to invest in those processes that are still somewhat amorphous and define a “for dummies” guide to operating in the enterprise.
Meaningful Collaboration - new tools, new methods
Although it might seem otherwise, I don’t hate meetings. A good meeting can solve a wide variety of problems and help you get to a consensus sooner than 40 email exchanges. But, we’re realizing now that modern productivity tools like Clergo are making you think in a structured manner rather than gathering seats at a table.
It’s harder to get on a virtual meeting without an agenda. And thanks to the fact that headphones, even the best of them, are uncomfortable, people are acutely mindful of the time and purpose. Are there things you could define now for meaningful collaboration that could inspire and not overwhelm people? Something to think about certainly.
Coaching and enablement, not monitoring or inspection
The days of monitoring in times and out times or hours checked-in are way past. Psst... I’ll let you in on a secret - if you had even remotely intelligent colleagues, they have found a way around this anyway. No need to panic! First, embrace the fact that you and your team now have a greater responsibility to move past activities and deliver outcomes.
If that’s the case, then how will you empower your teams to operate effectively? Do post-hoc reviews even cut it anymore? Or should you adopt more of a player-coach dynamic? There are no general answers, but, I will say this - it requires a greater focus on truly understanding levers of improvement to know how you can influence outcomes. Rethink.
Decentralized decision making - autonomy and accountability
We’re moving past the point on the evolution curve where everything up until now has led us to operate more independently as people and teams. Constraining these through artificial constructs will hurt you. Unshackle decision making and you will uncover more innovation. No, I’m not suggesting mutiny. I can quite understand the need for control.
But, we have biased against that principle so much, in general, that I could leave that very bold statement as is and I am confident you will err less than otherwise. One validation of this, going forward, would be if there are many multiple Slacks built on the same premise that teams can take their own decisions about how they can stay productive.
As I’ve said before, when we do go back to the office, we will go back with a renewed purpose. Maybe it’s time for another architectural leap. This time, even more fundamental.