COVID-19 has normalised working from home in a way unthinkable prior to the pandemic. We now have the opportunity to radically rethink how we conduct our work, ensuring that our spaces work for us, not against us.

Before diving into how we can go about this, we should acknowledge that this is not “normal” working from home. This is something mandated, rather than a voluntary choice. Aside our work we’re having to juggle childcare, our partner’s work schedules and lining up at the shops for loaves of bread. Pre-lockdown levels of productivity cannot be expected. Deadlines set prior to the pandemic but not revisited since are worthless. Call them out!

The lockdown has given us the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the tech, explore how to work remotely and forced the hands of employers to strengthen their working from home setups. Us in tech community might not have seen much of a difference, but in other industries this has involved a significant effort just so that businesses can keep the lights on.

Uncertainty reigns supreme over the timetable for returning to ‘normality’. Questions exist as to whether the old ‘normality’ is even possible or desired. Politically a lot of topics well outside the Overton Window are back up for grabs. I think that the opportunity is now present for a large rebalancing of how we work. I will explore:

  • why I think the “old way” of sitting in rows in an open office is harmful
  • why we shouldn’t return to this any time soon
  • how we can better utilise these spaces to work for us, not against us.

The Old Open Plan Office

The idea was to tear down barriers, to allow for collaboration - but this didn’t work out as planned. The space changed us. Face-to-face communication decreased significantly, with electronic interactions taking over. If someone’s looking like they’re busy, they won’t be deliberately interrupted. That said, distractions in an open plan office are commonplace - another team’s loud phonecalls or discussions, for example - leading many to purchase noise-cancelling headphones and further withdraw. Focus-based activities have a cognitive cost - if you get distracted, it takes a while to find your groove again. One meta-study showed consistent negative impacts on creative thinking, productivity, stress, motivation and concentration.

An Open Plan Office (Image by K2 Space, licensed CC BY 2.0)

So why did we continue to persist with this way of working? There’s two reasons I can think of:

Seen to be Doing Work

Bentham’s Panopticon prison was designed to be a space-efficient means for a security guard to observe all prisoners, without a single prisoner knowing whether they were actively being observed. Architecturally, the structure enforced compliance. Less dramatically, the same concept appears within open plan offices. When you’re physically present, you can be “seen” to be working by your colleagues and managers.

Whether you’re working on the right thing, or whether you’re missing out on other opportunities is difficult to quantify. This can manifest in subtle ways, but the idea that an employee is not being productive because they’re reading a book or watching a training course, can discourage those kinds of activities from being performed. Ultimately this is a short-termist practice, discouraging innovation.

Sardines

Office space is expensive, especially in city centres. Positioning your office at a transportation nexus has a strategic advantage, enabling employees to easily travel from home to the office. These two competing forces then balance out with wanting to get a return on investment from the office space - a high yield of employees who will earn money. Open plan offices are the optimal usage of the space, with their rows of desks and lack of boundaries. You get the most bang for your buck; the most sardines in the tin.

I’ve worked with organisations who’ve “downsized” and saved on cost by cramming into open plan offices and enforcing desk rotas. Staff would work from home so that the desk space could service multiple members of staff over a week. The result? There was little to no personalisation of the space. You didn’t “own” this space, you existed in it.

Remote By Default

So now we’re working from home, more or less, let’s look at what we’ll need to do as lockdowns are restricted. It’s looking likely that social distancing in some or other will be with us for quite a while. Returning to the big open plan offices is essentially a non-starter.

Large companies like Facebook and Twitter are acknowledging this new state of play by shifting to “remote by default” working practices. The days of travelling in a box to sit in another box with other people, to do work we now know you can do in your own box, are over. We have the means, motive and opportunity to create a happier, healthier and more productive working environment for all staff - giving them the flexibility to work in the ways that they need.

Embracing home working gives you the ability to have focus time. If you need to get your head down and do something - you’re not going to have the unnecessary distractions. If you need to read a book, go through some research papers, catch up with some virtual conferences (plug: NE-RPC) or Pluralsight/Safari training courses, you can plan your day to accommodate for these long-form activities. You can do so knowing the panopticon won’t be criticising your work choices.

It gives you the chance to own your space and customise it. My office has a whiteboard, photos, a minifridge and a sofabed (yes, I’m privileged to have the space; your mileage may vary, etc).

Finally, the commute is much easier. You’re giving staff the gift of time. More time with the family. More time for leisure. More time to get the housework done. This is a considerable improvement to work-life balance that people won’t want to give up.

The Virtual Water Cooler

You’re not a one-person army. Despite working from home, you’re still part of a team. Developing the appropriate techniques to still work effectively as a team takes time. Embedding these practices into the company culture won’t be doable in a day. I’ve found the following things useful:

  • Switching many email, or text-based conversations into video calls
  • Turning the webcam on by default (and encouraging others to do so)
  • Doing code reviews as video calls
  • Pairing on features over video calls!
  • Prefixing or suffixing calls with a bit of personal chat. Simple things such as asking how the day is going builds morale
  • Putting on a group chat when I’m wanting a break. This often spins up “ad-hoc” video calls where the team can socialise together
  • Encouraging Mario Kart tournaments on the Nintendo Switch (other game systems and racing games are available)

A balance still needs to be struck between being private and being present.

When We Still Need In-Person Meetings

Kanban

(Image by Christopher Huffman, licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

That said, I’m skeptical that we can do all work remotely. Or more correctly, that we should. There are some interactions that I’ve found to be more productive when conducted in person.

Agile Retrospectives are collaborative meetings which need to be performed in safe spaces. The physical boundary of the room acts as that barrier of safety. It also allows the team to feel the ‘energy’ of the room - reading body language, emotions, etc. Retrospectives often utilise co-operative activities to build understanding. Having physical space to conduct this and display any artefacts is vital for spotting trends and patterns from what’s produced. Sprint planning and user story mapping sessions utilise space in a similar way. Physical artifacts are an output of those meetings. Moving things around the space - in scope, out of scope, high priority, low priority, grouping things together - is integral to those meetings not being boring.

Think on that, as we draw some conclusions.

Design for Collaboration

The pandemic leaves companies paying a LOT of monthly rent, and not much of a need to cram in rows of desks. How could we instead utilise this space, given our new constraints, our new desires, and a bit of blue-sky thinking?

The answer lies in creating environments that foster creativity and collaboration. That’s going to mean private office space - for teams or individuals will depend upon circumstance. Allow for in-person collaboration through hot-desking, for those cases where you just need to prototype something or work together side-by-side. Create breakout space. Have quiet rooms, spaces for social interaction, spaces for people to create. Allow the space to be owned physically by those using them. The work will then follow.

Frankly, if I’m going to travel to an office in the future, I want to go there for the right reasons. That is, to spend time having interactions best suited for those environments. It’s obviously clear that I can do the programming from home.

One-size-fits-all approaches don’t exist here. Most importantly, design your spaces to promote positivie, constructive, collaborative interactions. Give your employees what they need to work in a happy and healthy way, then watch their productivity and morale increase.