When I started Echo, 18 years ago, one of our first tasks was to find an office to work in. Apart from finding clients, it was one of the most stressful parts of setting up our business, with deposits, guarantees, overheads, facilities. But it was important to us to have a place of work – it made Echo feel real. Then along comes flexible offices and all that stress became a manageable process for the business start-up. Office sizes can flex as the team grows and there are funky communal areas provided to ‘brainstorm’, drink beer and impress prospective clients.
In the past, it was thought that the best place to think and create was the calm of the countryside. Research and Development centres, such as Bletchley Park, popped up in the home counties, surrounded by parkland for quiet contemplation, or conversational strolls with learned colleagues. Then, this revelation was turned on its head with the idea of Hub working – which says that people need to be in the middle of the hurly-burly of city life to find break-through thinking. So, places like the Francis Crick institute were built right in the middle of Kings Cross, amongst shoppers, art students and Google employees, all rubbing ideas off each other.
Then the lockdowns hit. Everyone went home and Kings Cross was abandoned. The shoppers bought online, the students had a tough time of it, and the Google employers got bigger bonuses. At Echo, our staff all went home and within a moment we were all working happily on Teams. It’s remarkable how easy it was. The technology worked, we organised ourselves efficiently and everyone enjoyed the benefits of no commute. We ran one of the largest projects in our history without a glitch.
Getting back to work has proven to be much harder. Some, including myself, were gagging to get back to the office. Both because we thrive on company and because our roles work better with human interaction. Others had settled into a cosy routine. Sometimes because they preferred, or needed, to save time and money, or because they could work effectively, independent of human contact.
We could – and did – look at all these individual requirements and find simple, logical solutions for each one. At first, everything seems fine – but it’s not. It’s quite worrying.
There are outlying indicators that all is not well in this brave new world. Quiet Quitting is just one of them. With employees losing any sense of belonging, they start to regress from their job. We hear about doctors and others in vital, but stressful, jobs quitting and looking for a quieter life. City workers are moving back to their Devon and Dorset idylls, maintaining the status quo of their careers through laptops whilst growing their own vegetables in small holdings. This all sounds lovely, but where’s the energy? How are we going to increase our inventiveness and flagging productivity if we are all drifting off? How are we going to maintain the sense of shared purpose and comradery required to do the difficult but worthy jobs?
Businesses are constructs, they are not concrete things. They are a legal name, brand identity and a set of accounts. But most of all, they are a body of people. If one day everyone left, there would be nothing. If the legals, financials and systems are its bones, its community is its beating heart. If that community becomes too dissipated, it will stop beating.
We need to keep a balance. For example, graduate employees are tempted to stay at home with Mum and Dad to save on rent and commuting – with the bonus of getting their laundry done. Directors can enjoy working in their comfortable homes, spending time without commutes to walk the labradoodle, tend the roses and have midweek dinner parties. Separated from each other, the youngsters will miss out on all that peripheral learning and maturing they get from being around experienced people, and the senior team start to lose touch with their people, needs, moods and aspirations. They would both be better off finding time to be together even though the logical functions of their work may not require it.
We have learnt that creativity and ingenuity comes both from contemplating in leafy parks and knocking ideas around in a bustling coffee bar. The Hub idea is now, more than ever, critical to our productivity and success. It is all the better for the ebb and flow of energy created by working from home and in the office.
When designing our future work regimes, we need to consider the ‘soft’ power of community and belonging as well as the work-life balance we all need as individuals. In the extreme case of war, soldiers will say they fought for their comrades – not the flag they were under. In the workplace we are industrious. Not just for ourselves or the brand we work for, but for our colleagues whom we don’t want to let down. Being together gives us a sense of energising competitiveness, incremental measure against our peers and inspiration from our seniors. Mentoring others and being mentored is our sophisticated form of chimpanzees grooming each other – you can’t do that bonding on a video call.
So welcome back to the office – but it’s not as you once knew it. It will no longer be a place to have desk to work alone, that’s in your shepherd’s hut back home, but a ‘village green’ where you and your colleagues come together to collaborate and, more importantly, make your company tangible and worth believing in.