Let’s face it: the home office is much better than we thought. But it also comes with shitloads of challenges (11am and still in your bathrobe, anyone?). Part of the problem is the infrastructure. So what could a flexible sustainable model for the immediate future look like?
First a disclaimer. Yes, I know remote work is MUCH more than only infrastructure. The bigger key to success is probably in the processes, in the way colleagues and clients work together to achieve results.
That said, the physical spaces are obviously still an integral part of the equation. And definitely the most visible part. As things stand I therefore envision a sustainable solution which involves three layers:
1 the home office, done right
One of the main challenges at the moment is to have the discipline to separate your work from private life. The best way to do that is to have a small office room. Once you shut the door, you’re done working. If there is no such option (here in Berlin it is already difficult to find an apartment, let alone one with an extra office room), try to find a flexible solution. I have a standing desk with a bar stool, so I can alternate between standing and sitting. The next stage is to have small wheels, so I can roll the desk away in the evening and especially the weekends.
Those solutions were created by my genius self, but of course your employer should facilitate and finance this in the mid-term. This also means ergonomic furniture (a bar stool… no) and a proper set-up for video calls: sometimes an extra video camera, at least a dedicated microphone and sometimes extra lighting to make you look more professional and/or beautiful. All this to reduce friction in calls. Last but not least: proper internet connections, and security baked into this set-up.
2 the mid-layer
This almost sounds as if you were preparing for a hike in the mountains. I call this the ‘Urban Sports Club’ model: that is a sports subscription that doesn’t tie you to one fitness brand or one sport. It actually gives you the option (within limits) to go to different fitness schools, to participate in yoga lessons, to go swimming and much more. All of this for a price not much higher than that of an upper-class fitness brand. And… your company often even pays for that.
Reimagine that to the office world. You could go to the co-working space around the corner a couple of hours a week to meet with your colleagues. You could work in the library to escape your kids life for a while or to do some research. Or you go to the hipster cappuccino bar to
indulge in frappuccinos finish your presentation. Or you go to Maker Space where they have rooms for 3D printing, and an interactive screen so you can brainstorm with a colleague on another continent.
3 company HQ as big mama
There has been a lot of innovation in the design of office space in the latest years. Big Silicon Valley companies have made impressive, funky designs. If interested, you can find tons of inspiration at Officelovin or at T3 Advisors for example. But even in these designs you still see rows and rows of desks.
A slightly less exciting but more practical approach used at for example IBM and Microsoft has been activity-based workplace design: it is a palette of places, giving employees many more possibilities tailored to different demands. Booths for phone calls or intense work. Interactive screen rooms for service design sessions with (remote) colleagues. A personal office for having one-on-one conversations with colleagues. And of course a kitchen, a living room, yoga spaces and much more.
The advantage of this approach is that it is more flexible. It can adapt to demands over time. It also completely rethinks the office into a SPACE that actually feels nice to spend time, and not to sit at a desk. Because when on average 70-80% of the employees are NOT at company headquarters, those HQ themselves should become more of a meeting place than a place to work. A place that offers facilities that the other two layers can’t. A place where you can host your client meetings still. And a place that might be considerably smaller than the current HQ.
Not one size fits all
The question of course is how these three layers come together. But that, in the end, should actually be the decision of the employee. There are plenty of people who love to socialize with colleagues or with other professionals, and will prefer company HQ and the mid-layer. Some will prefer the home office and even opt to have that ‘home’ hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from company HQ (my not so secret dream). And there will be people moving seamlessly through all these layers, depending on the time of day, time of year, project stage, mood or other factors in play (that is why I envision these models not with an inner ring, outer ring and middle ring, but as three circles partly overlapping each other).
There is no one size fits all solution anymore. It is the task of an employer to facilitate choices, and to make the transition between the layers as seamlessly as possible. What option to choose in the end should be the employee’s decision. And yes, one should preserve company culture. One should make sure everyone is still exposed to a variety of opinions and social circles so we don’t end up in echo chambers of like-minded people, numb to the voices and needs of other parts of society. But how to mitigate those risks is more a question of processes, a theme I might elaborate on in the future.