Business Unusual

Where you work is getting complicated. Which do you prefer?

This was first covered in April this year when IBM announced it was recalling remote working staff back to the office.

They joined the best known tech companies such as Google and Apple which require staff to work from their offices.

So was the remote working a big mistake? Are we more productive at a central office and what would work best for your business?

It may be more complex now, but that may be the thing to allow you to get the most out of your staff.

Rather than the one size fits all scenario, it appears there are best practices for both office, home and the work-anywhere type work arrangements.

It begins with understanding what your staff members need to achieve

There are three options.

Work from home

Freelancers doing creative work like writing, illustrations or similar single team projects. Those that travel to see clients or inspect locations over a wide area. Consulting, mentorship and coaching roles. Oversight and support roles. All of these may allow for maximum personal productivity, minimised disruptions and optimised travel and work hours. A review of past studies indicate that there are more potential benefits for not working in an office than working in them.

Work from public spaces

Many of the work from home roles would benefit from also using locations like coffee shops. It allows for external stimulation and acceptable meeting options with clients. Shared or short term office space would also allow for keeping costs down while having the space needed for specific projects. As knowledge work continues to grow, and the gig economy seeks to contract certain skills only when needed, this option may see the most growth.

Work from the office

Still by far the most popular. Predicting that office space is becoming obsolete is very premature. But there is a growing set of options for how offices can be configured to get the best results.

The last significant shift in office use was a migration to open plan layouts.

Hoping to foster collaboration, teamwork and esprit de corps, studies from the 70s indicated that for scientists and engineers the physical proximity had a direct impact on productivity. The Allen curve holds that people you are physically closer to, you communicate with more often. The rule holds to about 50 metres. After that you may as well be working from home. Despite being over 30 years old, the updated research still appears to hold true.

If you need team productivity, you need to have them in an office and you need to have them near each other in that office.

Here is where the top tech companies may offer a way to understand why IBM may be correct to bring it staff back to the office.

Dave Coplin makes the case that rather than businesses deciding where a staff member should perform their work, employees should. Businesses should also consider paying for value, not time that staff spend working.

Team collaboration requires proximity. A lot development and design work these days use an iterative system called Agile. It seeks to identify the issue, make a guess at a basic solution, test it and keep refining the solution until you solve the problem.

Some team members would prefer the open plan set-up. Extroverted personalities engaged in organisational or supervisory work might thrive. Introverted personalities or those engaged with complex computational work will benefit from the quiet of a separate office.

Then there are meeting spaces. Where they are, what is in them and perhaps even what they are called may play a role.

Airbnb HQ does not only name rooms for locations you could visit, it replicates actual hosts' rooms from around the world. Working in those rooms makes it impossible to forget you are a global company.

Others use fun or fitting names. SpaceX uses names of famous space pioneers.

The remaining challenge is splitting teams across locations. There does not appear to be a single answer but it does hold that proximity for focused projects may be more of a factor than finding the best people to work across the globe.

There is one more factor to consider. The age of your staff.

Young people may be willing to travel more and work longer hours, but once they settle and have children expecting the same may see productivity fall.

On the other end of the scale is the age that people will retire. It is simply not an option for many. So keeping skills and experience may be best with the option to work remotely, or to come and go, to best mentor or check on team progress.

So now you need to decide if your work environment is optimised for the work your company does. You may find some small tweaks could result in significant improvements.

A short history of the open plan office and how it no longer works as well as it could.

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