A recent article in Harvard Business Review includes this stunning note: “Our leaders publicly announce that they want us to return to work, but for many of us, the current tensions regarding work all stem from us considering whether we even want to go back to an earlier way of doing things. ‘Normal’ led us into a workplace ecosystem that seemed designed to exploit us and stress us and reduce our agency. ‘Normal’ made us unhealthy. If organizations dismiss employee reticence or just hope that it will pass by, they will forever struggle to attract the best people and wonder why they have such trouble keeping the ones they do attract.” (Marcus Buckingham, ‘Designing Work That People Love,’ HBR May 2022).
The focus of the article is on work, not the physical workplace, but when I read it, as a workplace professional, I immediately began to relate it to setting. After all, it’s difficult to separate the work from the location where it is tackled. And the setting may have a large influence on whether an employee loves that work, and on the level of engagement.
Until recently, an imperative for many facility departments was to standardize the workplace – to provide the same settings and amenities to workers throughout the organization. That’s how the dreaded cubicle farm developed and why it persisted, even though it became the butt of jokes early in its life cycle. In a world where ‘working’ required showing up to a location, it made economic sense to standardize (and shrink) the individual workplace. We all recognized seas of cubicles as ‘normal’ workplaces.
Everyone has their own ‘normal’
As we know, the pandemic changed all that. When offices all around the world shut down, workers were forced to retreat to their homes, but also freed up to invent offices that suited their workstyles and personal preferences. While the early months of the pandemic were scary, they were also times of great creativity. We not only invented workplaces for ourselves but also ways to collaborate and socialize. We learned how to conduct productive video meetings over Teams and Zoom and Webex. We had virtual happy hours, and game nights and trivia contests.
And then offices began to reopen, at first tentatively and then more aggressively. And we found that many people preferred the personal office spaces they had created. What we once called ‘the new normal’ now seems broadly accepted as a hybrid working environment in which people work in the office when it makes sense, at home when it makes sense, and in other locations as need or desire indicates. Each person is defining their own ‘normal.’
‘One size fits one’
That is consistent with Buckingham’s argument that when it comes to work, ‘One size fits one.’ He views standardization as a deadening force, one that makes employees feel like cogs in a wheel rather than valued for their individual contributions.
Buckingham stresses that, “To avoid standardization, companies must organize around teams.” That too seems to be showing up directly in the physical workplace, where those empty cubicles are being replaced by settings for small and large groups to work together. We’ve realized that in the ‘new normal’ - a phrase that already seems terribly outdated - collaboration and teamwork are chief among the reasons for returning to a corporate workplace. At least occasionally.
People go to the office for teamwork and collaboration
In a hybrid environment, people make choices about their workplace for a variety of reasons. In-person collaboration is a strong reason for choosing to be in the office, but for others, getting away from household distractions, having easy access to certain tools or amenities, or simply being around people may be the driver. For others, real or perceived health concerns may continue to be a deterrence to the physical office. The point is that each employee may be making decisions based on different criteria, because a different set of factors has an impact on their work and their lives. As Buckingham writes, “It shouldn’t be surprising … that people in the same job love and do their work very differently.”
That recognition of, and respect for individual difference may be the best thing that has happened to the workplace – or at least the office – as a result of the pandemic. Because technology continues to improve the ways that we can work together without being together, we may gain the ability to determine our own workplace day by day – and in doing so, we may be able to position ourselves to offer up our best, most unique contributions to the business that employs us.
Our workplace technologies support you, as a workplace or facility management leader, to organize around teams and enhance workplace engagement.