Towards an Office Optional Approach

If you come across as many articles as I do about the world of work, the future of work and organisational design, you will have noticed that the number of people talking about “remote work” has increased considerably over the past six months. Last year the Work Foundation predicted that 2017 would be the year when 50% of the population in the UK would go "mobile". While I don’t have the data to confirm that yet, it certainly feels like it.

With this shift towards a more location-independent way of working, new meanings are being assigned to common terms. “Flexible working” has become “working from home” – it's being used more and more often to refer to people working from home rather than working in a flexible way. Something similar is happening with “agile working”. Last week I typed into the search engine of a journal’s database “agile working” and the text predictor added “hot desking” to my search term. It seems to me like the flexibility and agility of the new ways of working worth advocating for are being pushed to one side. 

So forgive me, but I’m going to add yet another term to the mix.


Office Optional


I came across this term when talking to Chris Slemp, discussing how the company he works for had made the move to fully distributed by going through “office optional”. I prefer this term over all the others because it has the word “option” in it. There is an option to use the organisation’s premises and there is an option to work elsewhere.

I feel like it’s important to name both options in order to make it clear that I don’t advocate for working from home. (I never have, and yet sometimes it’s being perceived that way.) I advocate for having the option to work from wherever you work best, or from wherever helps you to lead a happier life. (It goes without saying that I’m assuming that the nature of the work allows for this flexibility.)

In many ways, I feel like we’re going through a period where corporations (those with the resources to design their own workplaces) are finally understanding that the reason why some people want to work from home is because the traditional office doesn’t offer the right environment.

Some corporations are addressing this by designing different types of workspaces. I celebrate this. I know many people who cannot work from home, for whatever reason. At the same time, I feel like if so much investment is going into these workplaces, companies might demand that their people work use these offices and the personal benefits that employees get from not travelling into the office might be lost…

But let’s not look into the future too much, we never seem to get it right.

Taking an office optional approach in our team and even throughout our organisation might lead us to analysing the kind of work we’re doing and identify the essentials we need to get our work done. It can help us look at some of the activities we carry out and decide not where we could best carry them out, but whether we should be doing them at all.

Thinking in an office optional way can help us determine that actually, yes, we should carry on having our weekly status meetings in the office because they help us to feel connected to each other and that makes our work easier in non-tangible ways. Or we could be honest with each other and decide that getting together in person is not helping us in any way and we might as well invest a bit more time in making our work more transparent, so that we can all monitor the progress of the team.

In our journey to decide what work can be done from anywhere, we can decide that there are certain kinds of information that shouldn’t be exposed to outsiders on a laptop screen in a café, while there are conversations that can easily be had from a smartphone in the park. This kind of conversation can make us all more security conscious too. 

In any case, an office optional approach should help the team design work processes that are independent of location and where expectations revolve around how we do the work rather than where we do it from.


A Waste of Space?


So what happens when organisations adopt an office optional approach? Do they end up with a lot of empty space? Maybe. And it could well be that as a result, the organisation lets go of its headquarters for good. (For an example of this, read about how Automattic eventually closed its offices because nobody was using them.)

In most cases, especially those companies that tend to recruit local talent, or where the opportunity to recruit globally has not yet presented itself, the office will still be used some of the time by employees.

Why not turn this into an opportunity to bring fresh energy into the company and increase the chances of those serendipitous encounters that the experts say help fuel innovation? 

How about supporting smaller businesses by welcoming them to use the working areas, especially when these small business can eventually become affordable suppliers or even future clients? How about making the space available to the local entrepreneurial community? What about hosting meetups to reinforce your profile as industry leader?

Another strategy we might well be seeing more of is that of partnering with coworking networks to make use of spaces that are already flexible in their nature. Microsoft recently partnered up with WeWork to provide its mobile marketing and sales team with a base they could use when on the road. (Contrast this with IBM”s move to bring everyone back to their office, but that’s a matter for another post.) Companies could well downsize their main offices and partner up with coworking spaces near their employees’ locations.


Coda


An office optional approach might well distract us from our core work when we first introduce it, but my hope is that in the long term we won’t need an “office optional” approach. We won’t talk of remote teams, of dispersed ones, even of virtual ones. (How does the name “Not Distant” sound to you for a company specialising in helping teams?) We won’t talk of agile working, flexible schedules or activity based working.

All that will matter to us will be that we are happy with how we work.

Credit must go to the members of Virtual Team Talk who attended the session on How Do We Best Advocate for an Office Optional Approach. Thank you for your thoughts for and against, examples and inspiration.