What is the purpose of the office? I asked Maja Paleka, co-founder of Juggle Strategies, which is on a mission to make flexible work business as usual.

Maja Paleka and I met pre-COVID, which feels like a really long time ago, at a remote-working conference. It’s funny to reflect now on that conference now, because at the time it was a really novel concept for people to ask to work from home

We were pushing for flexibility within workplaces, but the pandemic period obviously completely changed attitudes towards working from home. But there are still big questions from businesses and employees about the right way to manage flexible work. 

I saw Maja’s post recently on LinkedIn about the purpose of the office, and asked her about the struggles businesses are having with hybrid or remote working.


The Challenges of Working from Home

Maja: It’s been such a massive revolution. We started doing this work in 2015, and back then it was really, really hard to get people to think about it differently. Obviously, we went through the pandemic process. But you’re right, we haven’t settled in the right place yet. I’m hearing similar things from leaders again and again.

Consistency & Clarity

The number one issue is inconsistency. From an executive and leadership perspective, many organisations we work with expected to have achieved a certain level of consistency by now.

Our experience is that some of this inconsistency stems from a lack of clarity. By this, I don’t just mean the messaging. A lot of organisations have been clear about their flexible work goals. I mean clarity in the implementation throughout the organisation as well. Many organisations have begun to realise that clarifying a flexible-work strategy actually takes work.

Many organisations have begun to realise that clarifying a flexible-work strategy actually takes work.’

When people have a lack of clarity, they’re just going to do the thing that’s right for them. If they’re feeling that teams are doing different things, individuals will look for what’s right for them. They lose the sense of connectedness across the organisation. 

Design

I’m also seeing that a lot of people have declared that they want to have a few days in the office, but they have not thought about what those days will be used for. How do we make sure that those days are used properly? 

Sometimes people come into the office, but they end up sitting on Teams or Zoom calls next to each other. And that’s really frustrating for everybody because they’re not able to collaborate and connect in person. 

people come into the office, but they end up sitting on Teams or Zoom calls next to each other.’

Back-to-Back Meetings

Or they’ve gone to the other extreme, and have decided to use the days in the office for face-to-face meetings. In theory, that makes a lot of sense for a lot of people, and I think if it wasn’t for my experience, even I wouldn’t have realised the problem here

But we’ve ended up scheduling meetings back-to-back. People are telling me, ‘we run in, we run out, and then we’re running to the next meeting room.’ If anything, because of the commute between meeting rooms, which you don’t have online, people at the office find they are always late. 

And there’s no time for the chitchat and personal stuff that we were actually hoping to get from being face-to-face. For many people, inconsistency and a lack of design mean the flexible-work experience is not turning out the way we had hoped.

Mandating a Day in the Office

Karen: Yes I can reflect on many examples across different organisations where employees have said to me, ‘I don’t know why I’m bothering to come in, because no one else is here. Why am I doing this commute?’  And the all-day meetings are just exhausting people. They actually come to dread the day in the office that is just running from one meeting room to the next. 

They actually come to dread the day in the office that is just running from one meeting room to the next.’

You talked a little bit about design, and what I’m seeing is the default design at the moment is mandating a day in the office. Business owners and leaders are saying, ‘We have to mandate  day because otherwise, we don’t get a critical mass. We want some time in the office for those water-cooler conversations, collaboration and communication, which is all super important. But then everyone’s here on a different day. The employees are getting frustrated, and we’re not getting what we want.’ What are your thoughts on mandating a day for everyone to be in the office?

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Starting with Why

Maja: That’s a really good question. The first thing is to take a step back and ask why are you mandating this? Let’s unpack the goals behind this, what leaders are really trying to achieve. 

Water-Cooler Conversation

You’ve mentioned one goal, which is the water-cooler conversation and the idea of ‘serendipity’. The interesting is that we are looking for these experiences but, as we were saying before, we aren’t actually getting them. We end up having face-to-face, back-to-back meetings. There’s no time to chitchat or to have serendipitous conversations.

To be fair, when we looked at the data and research around these experiences in the office pre-pandemic, the ideal of ‘serendipity’ wasn’t actually backed up by a lot of research. Open-plan offices were designed to create informal spaces to collaborate, but in many ways, they turned out to be killers of productivity

Some very interesting research has come out about people sending more emails when they’re sitting in open-plan offices, rather than talking face-to-face. In fact, we are talking less than we were way back when we all worked in cubicles. Back then we would walk over to someone’s cubicle and sit down and have a chat. But in an open-plan office, we feel bad, we don’t want to interrupt others with our conversation.

Productivity

I completely understand what those senior leaders are trying to achieve, but we have to stop and think about the purpose: what is the value of being in the office? And let’s design for that. 

When I ask leaders about their values around this, I hear a spectrum of responses. Some people are still very uncomfortable about whether productivity will be affected by employees working from home. That’s because we are now under economic strain and all organisations are focused on high levels of productivity. Slack has recently released some findings from a survey of 10,000 executives across the world which showed that 27% of those interviewed are still using activity as a measure of productivity. 

It is not surprising that a lot of people are nervous about what’s happening in the economy and the productivity of the organisation. They feel that getting people back into the office gives them a good, clear sense of what’s happening if they are still in that camp of using activity, as an indicator of productivity. 

I also think some people are sitting in that camp without being consciously aware of it. They have a level of discomfort around working from home, and want to feel in control and assured that things are getting done. 

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Collaboration

Some people are looking for collaboration opportunities that working face-to-face provides. But we need to look at how we enable collaboration and serendipitous conversations. Just shoving people back in the office together, doesn’t necessarily mean collaboration will happen

Once again, we need to think about the specific purpose for bringing people into the office. If we put them into back-to-back meetings, there will be no serendipity and no collaboration.

Connection & Culture

A lot of senior leaders feel they’ve lost connection and culture in a fractured workplace. I think there is definitely something to be said for that. But again, when we’ve interviewed organisations who have been down the mandate path, they tell us they have not seen an increase in connection and culture, not unless they’ve put some time into intentional design. 

The mandate itself is not going to give you what you’re trying to achieve, though I do agree that connection and culture are very valid goals. We need to do some work to deliver on those things.

Employee Engagement

Karen: I’ve also seen examples among our clients, where engagement survey scores and feedback indicated that the culture was being affected. People reported they were speaking on Teams or Zoom with their own team, but never hearing from any other team. 

People also say, ‘I can walk into that manager’s office or over to that person’s desk and get a quick answer, rather than having to book a meeting and find 15 minutes in their diary, which then becomes half an hour, etc. It is tricky. A lot of people have gone through these experiences and come out thinking, let’s just default back to what we know. 

We know what works in the office. But hang on, we don’t want to be in the office five days a week. How about we do two days and let’s mandate them. You can see how we end up with mandated days. It’s all for the right reasons. But it doesn’t always work.

How Do You Make WFH Work?

This all leads me to the question – how do you make it work? If you’re trying to do  hybrid work, how can you improve it? I’m sorry to leave you with a cliffhanger, but we’re going to address some great tips and tricks in the next post. And if you don’t want to wait for that, you just want to get in touch with Maja through LinkedIn. Maja is the co-founder of Juggle Strategies.

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