Will the office become the club house?

Since entering into our first ever experience of a global pandemic, last seen over a century ago, all of us in the white-collar business community have been grappling to understand how to operate in the much clichéd ‘new normal’. 

A big part of this has been working from home (WFH) and wondering, does this work, is it the future, and do we even need an office?

Working from home has obvious benefits for the employee, off the top of my head:

  • No commute time or cost.
  • No need to iron a shirt.
  • Less distractions.
  • Can split your day into segments to suit your personal life.
  • Make your home and IT (that you already had) tax deductable.

It also has some benefits for employers:

  • Could close your office.
  • Closed office means no printers, kitchen, cleaners, insurance and a whole host of costs are removed.
  • You team can be available over a wider timeframe during the day.
  • Happier team from having the autonomy we all crave.

WFH is not a new concept and originally appeared as early as the 1980s with the likes of IBM. IBM is a great example as they famously ended or reduced WFH in 2009 even though they had saved $2Bn on office space.

So, is it all roses and LinkedIn photos of thumbs up across a grid of an online meeting? And if it is, why are some of the most innovative companies in the world, Apple, Google etc., not doing it?

For me it can be summed up in a word, innovation.

If you want to innovate, and you do, as it’s “innovate or die” (Drucker), then 100% WFH (currently) does not work. Actually, I want another word – culture. A company with no innovation will die, and a company without culture will die. Why? Because without culture, no one will give a s*%t about the company, they will drift off, and they will leave.

I started to think about this in terms of a sporting team. If a sporting team does not have a club house, or a ‘home ground’ do they still exist?

I remember soccer teams that shared a ground when their stadium was being rebuilt. For those years while they waited, they seemed to wilt, to drift without an anchor. We all long for the club house, steeped in history, where you can pay homage to past greats, where like-minded people can gather to feel part of something, something bigger than your own existence.

It is even proven that us, humans, obtain amazing energy and connections through physical encounters, as eloquently surmised in this great article from Forbes:

So potent is the nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements, and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, the brain’s ”mirror neurons” mimic not just other people’s behaviors, but their feelings as well. (A reaction referred to as “emotional contagion.”)

Carol Kinsey Goman

So, for me, if you want innovation and teamwork, and in engineering we always work as a team, then you need a base. If want a company culture, then you need a base. But you don’t need an office. In fact, individual tasks are better undertaken at home, with peace and quiet, oh and a cavoodle puppy.

Ok, so what’s the answer already? The corporate clubhouse.

This is not an office. I am not even sure if it is for actually doing work. It is for gathering your team, it’s for storing your story, storing your trophies, for remembering who’s in your team.

Time spent here might not be ‘on-the-books’. It might be for socialising, learning new things.

I have just been reading (via audio) Shoe Dog (the story of Nike) and you hear all the key moments of an epic business, played out with a group of people, sat in the office, late nights gathered around a table. These are the pivotal moments, make or break, and I think these are best done face-to-face, at the war table.

This article from The Atlantic gives a great example of non-verbal communication at a key moment in an aeroplane cockpit:

Consider the extremely tiny office that is the cockpit of a Boeing 727. Three crew members are stuffed in there, wrapped in instrument panels. Comfort-wise, it’s not a great setup. But the forced proximity benefits crew communication, as reearchers from UC San Diego and UC Irvine demonstrated in an analysis of one simulated flight – specifically the moments after one crew member diagnoses a fuel leak.

A transcript of the cockpit audio doesn’t reveal much communication at all. The flight engineer reports a “funny situation.” The pilot says “Hmm.” The co-pilot says “Ohhhh.”

Match the audio with a video of the cockpit exchange and it’s clear that the pilots don’t need to say much to reach a shared understanding of the problem. That it’s a critical situation is underscored by body language: The flight engineer turns his body to face the others. That the fuel is very low is conveyed by jabbing his index finger at the fuel gauge. And a narrative of the steps he has already taken – no, the needle on the gauge isn’t stuck, and yes, he has already diverted fuel from engine one, to no avail – is enacted through a quick series of gestures at the instrument panel and punctuated by a few short utterances.

It is a model of collaborative efficiency, taking just 24 seconds. In the email world, the same exchange could easily involve several dozen messages – which, given the rapidly emptying fuel tank, is not ideal.

Jerry Useem

Interested to know other people’s thoughts, if you need me, you can catch me in the clubhouse, has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?