Rethinking Office Days

In the wake of the pandemic, companies have started to embrace work from home. But they rarely rethink office days.

Rethinking Office Days
Photo by Matthew Henry / Unsplash

Last week, Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky announced the company's new remote work design. The fundamentals are the following:

  1. You can work from home or the office
  2. You can move anywhere in the country you work in and your compensation won’t change
  3. You have the flexibility to travel and work around the world
  4. We’ll meet up regularly for gatherings
  5. We’ll continue to work in a highly coordinated way

On the surface, Airbnb's announcement isn't any different from what other companies have introduced in the wake of the pandemic. Working from home (or anywhere) has been part of many lives. And while it's a question of individual preference, there's no denying that the ability to choose your workplace is appreciated.

The work from home generation is about to shift how we organise office policies and design spaces and how our homes are built.

There Is No Blueprint Solution

It seems pretty straightforward for those who crave more flexibility in organising our daily work: Just give me the maximum of freedom. Unfortunately, however, most companies are complex organisations, and some people may have roles which don't allow them to work from home for any number of reasons.

Therefore, introducing new policies has a significant impact on culture, which needs to be considered. Once again, there isn't a blueprint solution for providing flexibility. The individual circumstances of any organisation need to be taken into account.

It's a wicked problem for the leadership to solve: They need to provide flexibility to retain talent while keeping the culture alive. The company's definition of flexibility may often not align with the employee's one. It's crucial that everybody can be part of these fundamental discussions.

Weekly Office Days Are Flawed

Everybody agrees: In-person gatherings and face-to-face interactions are still highly valued. We all know 'Zoom fatigue' when we were forced to work from home and craved to have a chat at the watercooler. Or just go for an after-hour drink with our colleagues.

Although it's not impossible to accomplish it remotely (here's an example by the FT), human interactions create relationships, trust, and culture more naturally.

Now, here's where companies tend to take the easy way and overlook the bigger picture. Just introducing weekly team days at the office won't cut it. There are a couple of reasons:

  • Weekly team days are counterintuitive to the notion of flexibility. For example, maybe a team member should care for their kids on that day but has to bow to the rules dictated by the team or company.
  • Teams don't work in silos. Other teams might work remotely on your team day, so you still have to spend most of your day in video calls or—even worse—hybrid meetings.
  • Often, the office day is valuable for one meeting only: The team meeting itself. But it won't occupy you the whole day.
Why should I go to the office for video calls? Photo by Surface / Unsplash

From my personal experience, office days are often not very enjoyable. Ringier, where I work, has introduced a mobile office policy, promising the "best of both worlds" and incorporating "a fixed quota of in-person team days per week."

Fortunately, I can maintain high flexibility and define one of the two days myself (which is not a fixed day). And nobody—at least in my department—is totally strict.

But on Thursdays, I'm usually in the office for a two-hour weekly team meeting. I have many 1-on-1 meetings with stakeholders, but it's impossible to have them all on Thursday because they have different office days. So aside from the team meeting, I'm stuck with my laptop in a phone booth or meeting room, participating in a video call.

The tricky question: Is this day worth getting up earlier, commuting, getting home later? Right now, my answer is: No, not all the time.

We Need To Facilitate Human Interactions

A lot has been written about convincing people to come back into the office. Companies start to rebuild their spaces to tend to the changing needs. But in this new normal, analogue gatherings need to be actually facilitated. Simply transporting the usual workday from home to the office isn't the desired solution.

In an ideal world, an office day isn't stuffed with meetings but leaves room for spontaneous interactions. And it's free from hybrid or remote sessions. However, the reality of work doesn't allow it every week.

Circling back to Airbnb's announcement, the company takes a different approach to in-person meetings:

Being together to connect and collaborate has always been an essential part of our culture, and we’re doubling down on that. Instead of spending a set number of days in the office together, we’re prioritizing meaningful in-person gatherings that will happen throughout the year.

Most of you should expect to gather in person every quarter for about a week at a time. Some roles, especially senior roles, will be expected to gather more often. We’ll do our best to define windows when most large team off-sites will occur and give you plenty of notice so you can make it work with personal and family plans.

Airbnb clearly aims to facilitate these gatherings and create meaningful interactions actively. They seem to acknowledge that these meetings shouldn't be business as usual but experiences that create shared memories and drive culture.

Again, Airbnb's concrete plan might not work for every company. But leaders should learn from the intentions behind their actions. They need to answer questions like:

  • Why do we want to gather in person?
  • What is the purpose of in-person meetings?
  • How can we create meaningful offline experiences?

But most importantly, leaders need to start a discussion about a tailored solution together with their employees.

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