A decade ago, two forward-thinking business leaders and authors re-imagined the company of the future and introduced the concept of the ‘unbossed’ workplace:
The purpose of the office is to bring people together and foster teamwork, innovation and service.
The office has to accommodate and promote a range of different processes. It has to allow employees to work in different groups and freely interact with others, often with people from other professions and functions in the company. There has to be room for customers, suppliers and other partners who may not be formally part of the company but who play an important role, nevertheless.
The unbossed office will almost certainly be smaller, than your current one because most of your colleagues will work elsewhere in the future.
Does this sound familiar?
Brave new world
In their 2012 book, Unboss, Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter descibe a ‘brave new world’ in which everyone works where and when they want. Virtual tools connect people with ease and designed spaces welcome co-workers for synchronous activity. Some people may be in the office, others may work from home and there will be hybrid meetings. The key is to create value from a place of passion and meaning, thanks in part to the freedom of choosing place and time of work.
Years later, the Corona-19 pandemic was like a ‘dream come true’ in terms of serving as a gigantic, global laboratory for testing their hypothesis. Overnight, offices around the world experimented with virtual collaboration and jobholders grew to consider this new, freer style of working a ‘fait accompli’.
Back to reality
However, it seems that the dream has turned out to be more complicated in reality as companies struggle with the aftermath:
- Virtual meetings tend to be high on content and low on contextual input (body language, facial expressions if not a video call, etc.).
- Missing informal interactions and workplace rituals, new, and especially young employees, experience a drop in motivation, lack of affiliation with fellow workers and detachment from organizational culture.
- Early career employees working remotely are not learning as much as they would like and feel at a disadvantage for promotions and other career development opportunities.
- Mental health issues arise for workers who lack social contact and feel isolated.
- Negotiations, brainstorming, providing sensitive feedback are just some of activities that are often less effective when done remotely.
Today, we observe a spectrum — on the one hand, total freedom to work when and where people want with the extreme being digital nomads who only connect virtually. And on the other hand, companies who are pressing folks to come back to the office full-time. With all shades of grey in between!
Companies are trying to strike a delicate balance between granting complete freedom – especially in a tight job market where people take it for granted – and requiring an optimal presence in the office. Fearing attrition, they have become creative in imagining ways to attract employees – office furniture in round, organic forms, off-site and on-site happenings, adopting tech start-up freebies like lunch, open coffee bar, and in-house yoga, …
Seeing each other life, is the glue
The oft-stated intention behind the return-to-office is to foster teamwork and forge a sense of community. There is a lot of truth to this. While the open-buffet approach to workplace interactions affords freedom and work/life balance, it can be argued that real teamwork needs sustained human connection and spontaneous interaction. While intangible, seeing each other live is the glue. At Yeast, our experience working with teams on collaboration (luckily mostly physically) has shown us that employees feel:
- they need human connection as a foundation for building personal-professional relationships and,
- they collaborate better when in-the-flesh because the nature of their projects calls for the proximity of intricate teamwork.
It is not enough to bring people into the same room
And yet, for collaboration and connection, it’s not enough to just bring people into the same room. Kolind and Botter ponder: What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value? We should ask ourselves that question, because the rules may in fact be based on assumptions that we need to drop. Indeed, we need to have deliberate questioning around, “How do we hold our meetings? What are the ways in which we interact? Is everyone’s voice getting heard? How do we get the most out of the moments we spend together?”
There is neither one right answer for these questions, nor one right way to do things. Companies need to land on a compelling employee value proposition — experiment with hybrid work models, dovetailing business imperatives with people’s needs. In the words of Unboss, ... mak[ing] sure that all of the bricklayers know that they’re building a magnificent cathedral, not just laying brick on brick for eight hours a day.
Where do you place yourself on the remote-work/return-to-office continuum?
How is your organization tackling the place-based versus virtual-environment conundrum?
What do you think the ideal unbossed workplace looks like?