What We Learnt about Work in Lockdown, Part Two: The Office

What We Learnt about Work in Lockdown, Part Two: The Office

The office has always just been part of the architecture of work that many of us have never given a second thought to.

In its earliest days before computers and the internet, it was an anchor that tethered us under a common purpose. It was the necessary locus for communication, trading knowledge, and the inking of deals. 

Yet even as technology evolved and gave us the ability to work anywhere, the concept of the office endured. And it wasn’t until lockdown that we were truly able to pinpoint our reasons for going to the office each day — or the things we’d come to miss when we were forcibly extricated from it.

Some of these things were easy to replicate, like the tools and equipment. But there are certain, less tangible, things that have been more difficult to reproduce — like the extra walking and thinking time in your daily commute, or the spontaneous way you can bounce ideas off one another in a meeting.

Above all, it’s the informal conversations that many of us have missed most. Those ‘water cooler’ chats that have very little to do with actual water coolers, and much more to do with how we unconsciously build intra- and inter-team relationships and feel connected to the company we work for.

In our previous post, we looked at the many ways our employees are experiencing work at home during the pandemic. In part two, we take a look at how COVID-19 has reshaped our perceptions of working in the office — and what this could mean for the future of work.

Going back to work wasn’t this big thing, but it also doesn’t make everything normal again. But like any change you go through, we’re feeling our way and reconnecting to a new ‘normal’.

Shanice, Account Executive, Auckland

“I miss chatting to my colleagues over a coffee.”

“One thing I’ve struggled with is that I really just enjoy having that interaction in person with the rest of the team,” says Bobby, a Customer Success Consultant based in our London team. “It’s a small thing, but I miss it a great deal.

“Online, it feels like there’s an extra step to communicating — it’s not as natural,” he adds. “You might speak to someone at the end of the day and they tell you, ‘I’ve had such a hard day,’ but you have no idea because you can’t see them physically. But when you go and speak to someone in person, there’s less of a barrier to imposing on them, or understanding how they’re feeling in that moment. 

“Working from home has made me realise that I’m so looking forward to going back to the office,” he smiles. “I just want to say hello, and grab a cup of tea with my team — that sounds like such a nice and simple thing to do.”

AP, our Product Manager likewise based in London, agrees with Bobby, adding that being able to see people in the office is just as important for her own wellbeing: “I’ve had some really stressful weeks in lockdown — and normally when we’re in the office I can defuse that by taking a five-minute break to go grab a coffee and a giggle with someone.

“There are people that I don’t work with at all and don’t speak to them that often — but I miss them. I took for granted having those loose relationships with people that you don’t work with. I miss having those conversations, and I really want to make sure I have stronger relationships with them when I go back.”

“I prefer keeping my work and life spaces separate.”

“I thought that after working from home during lockdown, I’d like it more,” begins Karolina, our Mobile Product Manager based in Copenhagen. “Instead, I found it more challenging — I have a problem with cross-contamination of space.

“I really like the routine of getting ready for work and going to the office. I consider my home as a space where I can relax, rather than a place where I exercise and work. I found it challenging to have all of those things in one space.

“Working from home during lockdown in Copenhagen taught me how much I value that separation between the places I work and live — and it’s something I’d like to keep in my life.”

Tony, a member of our US sales team based in New York agrees: “It definitely took some adjustment. My wife and I live in a comfortable apartment in New York, but all of a sudden, the communal spaces we were used to having access to were no longer available. It was hard to minimise us interfering with one another’s phone calls.”

“I find it easier to collaborate in the office.”

“One of the challenges I experienced when working from home was around how we collaborate and work together,”, says Katrina, a Brand Designer based in Copenhagen.

“As we’ve been working from home, it’s been more difficult to understand what projects people are working on. When you’re in the office, you might not know exactly what everyone’s working on, but at least you can peek over someone’s shoulder and get a better understanding of what their week looks like.

“I felt that not knowing exactly what people are working on also contributed to my anxiety — it’s easy to feel isolated when you don’t always know what your team is up to. It hasn’t always been easy to figure out what the priorities have been or the smaller details that add clarity to our day-to-day work. Processes and communication became even more important during this time.”

When it comes to mutual projects, Bec, Peakon’s FP&A Finance Business Partner based in London, thinks that while having the right tech to collaborate is helpful, working together in the same space can facilitate collaboration in a way that video calls can’t.

“Zoom conversations can be so performative in their own way,” she notes. “For me, there’s no substitute for being in the same physical space as your team members. When you’re together with your team in the office, you have a synchronicity which can make it so much easier to collaborate on projects.”

“Going back to the office after lockdown is about finding a new ‘normal’.”

“Lockdown was a bit of a social experiment for our team to figure out how we could work in the same way and maintain our culture while we were apart,” says Shanice, an Account Executive based in our Auckland team. “We’re a small team, so before lockdown we’d always opt to come into the office and work together rather than work from home. 

“At the start, everyone wanted extra time with one another and we had lunch calls on Zoom every single day. But after seven weeks of lockdown, I found that constant digital connection a challenge.

“By the time we went back to the office, it was about having to make that shift again from working in a digital context to being in the office together physically — it’s not a tap you can just turn back on. We’re the only ones doing this transition so far, so there has been no instruction manual on how we should do it. 

“Going back to work wasn’t this big thing, but it also doesn’t make everything normal again. But like any change you go through, we’re feeling our way and reconnecting to a new ‘normal’.”

Why understanding your employees’ experiences now is critical to how you operate in the future

As many organisations have transitioned to operating remotely in the past few months, this new working context has fuelled a hot debate on the future of the office as a physical space.

From listening to the experiences of our own employees, we’ve learned that many of us value the locale of the office as a means to bring about more effective collaboration on mutual projects, and as a way of keeping our work and home lives separate. And while company culture is more than the office, it’s clear that working in a common space can facilitate those deeper relationships that help employees feel connected to their larger organisation.

As organisations consider how they will function in the post-pandemic world, these experiences will be something they will need to bear in mind if considering a hybrid or remote working context. 

While many employees have largely appreciated a better work-life balance during the pandemic, the majority seem hesitant to renounce the office for good. With collaboration and relationship-building key focus points among employees, perhaps it’s time to trade in desk-filled offices for ones built around meeting and collaboration spaces instead.

Above all, organisations may need to invest in technology and tools that facilitate and nurture these connections between their employees — both on a collaborative level, and a cultural one.