Working Wider

Risky Distance: How Covid-19 Inverts the Open Office

Private offices have been under attack for decades.  First came cubicles followed by hoteling. Most recently, long tables where knowledge workers sit side-by-side in headphone-enabled bubbles are de rigueur.  In theory, each goes further to create a cross-functional community that also saves money by increasing the number of people per square foot.  Add in free gourmet food service and perhaps those expensive knowledge workers would happily work even longer?

Could you design a better Petri dish for the Corona virus?

Brace yourself if you are one of the first to return to the post-Corona office.  Corona safe 1.0 slams open office design into reverse gear because it swaps density for distance as it throttles community contact.

Welcome Back….And Please Stay Away from Me!

Here’s a sample of what you can expect in the post-Corona office:

  • Signage explosion – Underfoot, on the walls, at every entrance and exit, signs will remind you to keep your distance, wash your hands, clean your work surface, etc.
  • Barriers – Clear particle barrier shields will be augmented by furniture and planters placement to inhibit any herd-like movement or gathering.
  • You’re the Janitor –Janitors will do evening deep-cleaning, so you do the rest. You’ll be wiping down shared surfaces regularly.
  • Mask and sterilization dispensers – HR will sponsor mask decoration contests and sanitizer stations will be omnipresent
  • Vending/coffee sequestration – Nix to community touch attractions.
  • Automated or always open doors – door handles are viral network hubs to be avoided.
  • Continuous Bio-metric testing – Expect to be regularly sniffed starting with distant temperature scanning.
  • Fewer community spaces – Nice to see you but who was sitting here a moment ago?
  • Fewer large meetings – “I just don’t feel safe” will be the new key to meeting avoidance.

Is it worth it?

Ronald Coase won a Nobel Prize by demonstrating the rationale for the modern organization is lower transaction costs.  Having people in the same tent used to be far cheaper than coordinating outsiders.  The original Ford plant started with raw iron ore and turned out complete cars.  Outsourcing and globalization emerged when technology dropped the cost of outside coordination…and that’s just the economic argument.

In reality, work is a social container as much as it is a production engine. The social pressure to get back to work builds on the economic motivations.  This is particularly true for small personal service businesses where interaction, including with the customer, is the product.  Even those who don’t miss their job miss the folks with whom they work.

Post-Corona safety requirements increase the transaction costs of running offices while concurrently diminishing the community and coordination value.  If we stay further apart in the post-Corona office, why are we so anxious to get back together again?  Maybe we need to learn team spreading vs. team building?

The Way Forward

As noted in my previous post, the Corona crisis can accelerate the adoption of innovation by removing alternatives.  Rather than transforming the current office to comply with Corona safety requirements, resist that instinctual response and invest in making work more efficient in a hybrid office-remote model.

Over the years, many Silicon Valley companies migrated to enable selective remote work principally based on employee lifestyle preferences.  The migration has been a messy accommodation more than a purposeful strategy that’s actively pushed, integrated, and advanced technology.

The evidence for that is visible in the “freemium” sales models tool makers such as Slack employ.  They offer a free version that provides enough value to pull bottoms-up purchases by local managers.  The hope is that if enough adopt, the pressure for organization-wide IT support and customization will push switching to a higher service, enterprise version.

While remote working tool makers have all the right “community” and “collaboration” buzz words in their sales pitches, we are at the very beginning of understanding what it takes to build a distributed social-technical work system.  Most organizational practices, procedures, and norms are grounded in physical presence.  For example, the vast majority of supervisory and managerial training implicitly assumes physical proximity.  References to remote working are mostly afterthoughts.

We need video systems to evoke healthy arguments along with polite presentations.  We need a remote equivalent to jumping up to a whiteboard that’s as frictionless as the real thing.  We need ways to have hallway conversations beyond the chatbox and without a physical hallway.

You get the point.  We want to go back to the office because the technology and infrastructure that replaces it aren’t there yet.  Rather than just falling back; consider leaning into defining what’s coming next: the intentional hybrid office.

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