Do we really think four months of limited, face-to-face interaction will override six million years of evolution?
Think of everything you used to do in the office you didn’t strictly think of as work.
A coffee break, a walk to the printer, a trip out to buy some snacks for your team, a jaunt down to reception to pick up the post, a stroll in the corridor which turns into a spontaneous chat with a potential client, an impromptu lunch with your teammates and dare I say it – a lucky eavesdropped conversation.
If you were working in a typing pool in the 1960s, all of these little snippets of time would probably get you fired. If you’re anything like me and can remember those pre-pandemic, halcyon days – these things used to punctuate your day. Even more than that, all of these nano-encounters probably brought some value to you and I’d argue they make us human.
So, when people keep saying to me – the office is dead – I am not convinced. Yes, homeworking can support well-being for the right person at the right time, but in the long term? Do we really think that four months of limited, face-to-face interaction will override six million years of evolution?
Read more: Is your company shifting to remote work permanently?
Humans need to work together and be together. If companies do start ditching their office completely to save money because they’ve realised homeworking can actually work, then I fear we will lose out in lots of ways.
Rapport and relationships
When humans meet, we search for rapport – something that we can relate to. It’s how we build trust with each other. We might do this with words and questions, “what’s your name” or “where are you from” but there are deeper aspects. These could be the tonality of the voice and even your body language.
Back in the good old days you might have noticed this in a meeting or while you were chatting to a colleague – it’s much more prominent when we’re first meeting someone and especially noticeable when you look at body language. Have you ever been in a situation where more than one of you has gestured in a similar way? You might all be sat with your hands behind your head or pushed away from your desk? This is a subconscious tool that drives rapport, a trait that is deep inside you that evolved over those six million years to feel closer and ‘make friends’ with the people around you.
Although video calls are effective, do they build rapport like this? I’m not sure you can pick up on minutiae non-verbal cues through a screen. In an office environment, there are far more opportunities to build rapport on a daily basis outside of meetings. At your desk pool with your teammates, you'll notice if someone is especially quiet or how they behave when certain things happen. All of these little tip offs about the people around us help us know each other better and work with each other more effectively which can only be positive for our employers.
Read more: HR to push for a 'permanent' remote work policy
Building rapport is one factor where being physically together has a huge benefit. There is another very valuable aspect, one that is hard to quantify because you simply don’t know when they’ll happen. These are the serendipitous, unexpected conversations. They simply do not and cannot happen remotely.
You can’t overhear a crucial conversation, or talk through a challenge or listen to someone explaining what they are working on. As I am writing I have just had a visit, a novel face-to-face in-person meeting with someone about a potential project.
The type of innovation and ideas we were talking through just couldn’t be explained over an email or an exhausting video call. We had a chat about this subject, and it was exactly what we needed to do to get the ball rolling. It was clear, not having the opportunity to do this during lockdown had stifled creativity and progress.
As an engineer first and a people manager second, I believe working in isolation through screens isn’t conducive to how I work.
Read more: How to create a remote work policy
Making a home
The office provides the sense of being together, a shared home to come back to, somewhere that we feel comfortable and ‘at home’ and this sense of comfort cannot be overlooked.
Think of it like this: when we are away from home, in a hotel or just a strange house, we rarely sleep well on the first night, and that is by design. Our bodies are on high alert. Deep down in our brains, we don’t feel comfortable or ‘at home’. We can trick our minds by travelling with our own pillow – the feel and smell trick us into thinking we are in a known place.
The same is true of where we work – being somewhere known, familiar, comfortable makes a difference to how we feel and the work we do. Nobody does their best work when they feel threatened, that is just basic human nature. This might seem counterintuitive when the opposing view is to work from home, but our home isn’t our work environment, it’s bound to feel jarring.
Working from home is great and we get a lot done, which has come as a shock to many. It can be brilliant for our mental state, our well-being, and is undoubtedly great for the environment. It may be cheaper but it’s far from perfect and not how we are programmed to work: in a silo.
As humans, we congregate in groups or tribes, and when it’s safe to do so, we should be able to return to our home tribe in our office habitat.
I see the future as having a blend of home and office. Be together when needed and be focused and apart when not. To make this happen, employers need to invest in great spaces rather than just spaces. Invest in technologies that enable us to collaborate if we aren’t together and explore ways to inject the serendipitous moments that we should all value so much.
Jamie Hinton is CEO and founder of enterprise tech firm Razor Ltd