What will business as usual look like in the post-pandemic office? Will some of us continue to use our private spaces as workspaces? Do we need to be in the same place as our colleagues to take advantage of the creative frictions that physical colocation is known to encourage? Or can we get by with a curated combination of remote work and in-person work, as the popularity of hybrid arrangements suggests?
Prioritizing Human Connection
In the January 2021 report “Shaping the Future of Work for a Better World,” global commercial real estate company JLL predicted that accelerated digital workplace transformation, coupled with an emphasis on the worker, will “address both the rising expectations of the workforce and the growing importance of human connection.” Future workspaces will need to be more flexible, less centralized, and more people-centric to both attract and retain the best talent while ensuring that these workers are energized and creative both when working remotely and in person.
In fact, in conversations about what we’ve missed most about the offices we left behind last year, a persistent theme has emerged: We’ve missed our colleagues. We miss the opportunities for chance interactions with people we know well and those from other teams we may know less well.
Especially for people new to a company, the ability to network and connect in person is critical to building what Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, identified in 1973 as weak ties — those casual acquaintances who move us outside our established and familiar “strong tie” networks. Weak ties offer us the opportunity to learn and expand, and in fact most people learn about and get their next job through such connections.
Physical boundaries between work and domestic life have shifted radically for many; so too has our perception of what’s needed for productivity and collaboration, as has the meaning of “the office” itself. These shifts necessitate a rethinking of what kinds of activities are most suited to colocation and which ones are best left to more private venues, whether a home office or a third space. A simple reset to pre-pandemic policies based on outmoded notions of face time and presentism are no longer assumed nor, in many cases, desired or sustainable.
The time has come for more nuanced approaches to workplaces as ecosystems rather than discrete physical locations. We need to be asking ourselves and, more important, asking our employees what kinds of experiences benefit from what kind of spaces — a question that can no longer be treated as though “one size fits all.”
The process of reimagining office spaces introduces critical, overarching questions: How will our imaginations around the concept of workspaces and the evolving use of technology support our work practices? What do today’s transformations suggest about what it means to be human at work?
Within this flux, one fact remains: People are social animals. Personality traits of introversion or extroversion aside, people need people. Advances in digital tools as intermediaries for enabling connection are not enough. Serendipity, while not a new concept in workplace architectural design and planning, will become a more pressing one as hybrid approaches limit workers’ opportunities for in-person interactions. Leaders will need to anticipate and shape the kinds of social moments that enable richer, more meaningful human connections in our offices and work lives.
Portions of this article originally appeared on the MIT Sloan Management Review website.
The Sundance Company
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