Five Oaks Consulting

Remote working is hard but here to stay. And so are offices

Guest blog by John Gillespie – Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Amnesty International 2013-201, and  Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at  Circle Gas, a Kenyan start-up 2019-2022. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Five Oaks Consulting.

The pandemic changed how we worked

Back in 2019 I wrote on the challenges of managing remote working. Back in those innocent days it was an increasingly hot topic, but most employees turned up at the office most days. One pandemic later and we are all experts on remote working.

The consensus seems to be ‘the employees have won; we aren’t going back to the office’. Have they won really? Is the office dead?

My colleagues and I travelled more than most during the pandemic. We were running a startup with operations in Kenya and China. I only spent a few weeks in self-isolation. My CEO spent 6 weeks in the quarantine required to travel to China and back to the UK. We weren’t flying all over the world and putting our health at risk for the fun of it. We were traveling to see people, and that meant visiting offices. Place matters.

We are social animals. Turns out we still like a place to meet, to collaborate and to learn from each other. The office of the future is going to be a place for some people to work, but a place for a lot more people to work together in specific ways – ways that are best done f2f.

The future of remote working

First, remote working is here to stay:

      • The pandemic has proven virtual working is feasible; and even desirable (to many), though not all

      • CFOs are under pressure to control costs and cutting office space is an obvious place to look  

      • Technically, remote work is a solved problem. The advice I offered back in 2019 is now embedded. I was particularly bemused to see the quality of internet connections, sound and video improve significantly over the course of the pandemic all without much assistance from IT.

      • Leaders and employees are adapting, some by trial and error, some with the help of the courses like the ones offered by Five Oaks Consulting

    However, we still need offices:

        • We like to get together for team building and to learn from each other.  Some parts of work are move effective when we are together — for example certain forms of collaborative creativity, onboarding new people, or the building of trust and candor.

        • Some people need space to work effectively. Not everyone can afford a space free of distractions. A home office is a luxury not available to all. Expecting all knowledge workers to work from home will penalise many. Particularly women expected to look after children. You will lose valuable colleagues if you do not recognize the equity side of this.   

        • Collaboration is easier and more effective when people have the opportunity to sometimes meet and work on shared problems, face-to-face.

      Create offices that work for all workers

      Our old offices are no longer suitable. I recently visited an office with bank after bank of desks all kitted out with dual screen monitors and high-end office chairs. 3 years ago it would have been buzzing with people. Now there was only a single lonely soul in the whole room. It was soulless and miserable.

      What can leaders do?

      Leaders can take the following steps:

          • Offices need to be designed around the organizational culture and behaviours that leaders want to promote, and that needs to be collaboration, and the promotion of ‘accidental collisions’ and spontaneous, unstructured meeting points. So, make sure to have lots of flexible meeting space.

          • Give those spaces the technology needed to collaborate and communicate with hybrid/remote teams. A properly equipped meeting room with well-designed sound and video can be good place for virtual conferences.

          • Create offices that are pleasant to visit and work. Staff have choices. That may mean wholesale redesign, redevelopment or even relocation of some offices.

          • Set an expectation that an office is a collaboration space that teams are expected to attend. The frequency will dependent on the team and the mission (and whatever the organization may mandate). That might range from a couple of days a week to a couple of days a year. 

        What’s next

        Why is a CIO talking about facilities? The tech sector had a good pandemic. Billions were thrown at video conference software, internet connections, laptops and webcams, and it paid off: we made remote working work. People are taking a bit longer to adapt, it is hard to change career-long habits, but it is happening.

        Our offices are next.