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To Paraphrase Goldilocks, in a Post-COVID Workplace, This Cubicle Is Just Right

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Twitter has provided both itself and its employees the opportunity to plan what work and life will look like for the foreseeable future. The certainty of knowing likely brings comfort to its employees in a very uncertain time. And while Dorsey did not explicitly say this—it’s extrapolation on my part—if a certain number of employees commit to working from home, Twitter can better determine how to reconfigure workspaces for those returning to the office and perhaps even divest itself of costly real estate.

Ever since states began issuing shelter-in-place guidance, and perhaps even more now that some areas are beginning to reopen, the news has been filled with predictions about what the future of work. As a voracious consumer of news in an incredibly prolific news cycle, I’ve read dozens of them, and here’s what I’ve learned: either we will never return to the office and employers will track our every move through our computers or we’ll return to the office and our employers will track our every move through our phones, plus track our temperatures using thermal scanning. Either way, it’s a dystopian nightmare.

I kid. Sort of. If you follow the links, these are realistic scenarios. The consensus from all this reading is that things will be different, but nobody knows exactly how, and therein lies an opportunity.

The Office as an Experience

For many industries, working from home is simply not an option. We’ve seen hospitality-focused and non-essential retail industries decimated by shelter-in-place. Part of the value these businesses bring is experiences: traveling to a new place, staying in a boutique hotel, dining where the locals do, or maybe just get out of your house for an evening at really cool restaurant or bar. I would posit that even the experience of going into an Anthropologie store with its funky, vintage and handcrafted displays, and signature distressed floors, is difficult to replicate on their website, and there’s strong value in that.

Perhaps it’s time we think of workplaces as an experience as well—not in the tech startup sense with foosball tables, free snacks, and beer on tap, but in a more modest sense: think of them as places people would actually want to spend their day. Over the course of my career, I have walked down a labyrinthine, gray hallway to get to my private, windowless, equally gray office. I’ve been wedged into a tiny, open workspace where the noise was deafening and my desk phone was so inconveniently crammed behind my second monitor that I became known for the catchphrase “text me like a normal person.” I’ve had my back to a conference room, a bathroom, and my boss’s desk, where a steady stream of people coming and going, the constant chatter, and yes, the toilet flushing, made it impossible to concentrate. My stress level rose, productivity plummeted, and inevitably it led to a “second shift” where I worked at home. No matter how much I loved my job or appreciated my coworkers, these were not places I wanted to go, nor were the situations sustainable.

I’ve also had the pleasure of working in a bright, semi-private cubicle where glass partitions let in sunlight but muffled noise, there was just enough space to spread out, and a comfortable side chair welcomed coworkers for impromptu discussions. I will forever think of it as my Goldilocks workspace, as in “this cubicle is just right.” It was as welcoming as my home office and perhaps more so because it offered two things my home office does not—coworkers and IT support. Even after the company relaxed its office-only policy and we all began working from home a few days a week, I often preferred to go in. It was my most fervent wish then that all my coworkers had a similar workspace, but cubicles were limited and designated for more senior employees.

There are many companies or roles within companies where remote work is both possible and practical, and there is a growing body of technology tools to support it: Zoom, Slack, Teams. Technical teams have an even greater set of tools at their disposal. Many people are discovering, even those who were initially reticent, that working from home is more than do-able, it’s fantastic. In fact, according to The Harris Poll, 65% or workers report being more productive now that they are working from home.

But there is a downside to remote work. As this Bloomberg article points out, for many, working from home comes at the cost of work-life balance. Always on, no dedicated space, constant interruptions from children and pets. Zoom happy hours are all the rage, but are we really enjoying them? This article in The Atlantic suggests we’re not. And who wants to live in mortal fear of appearing to be pantless on Zoom as this GMA reporter was? Working from home can be stressful, and this alone may be enough to send workers racing back to the office as soon as possible.

Once again citing The Harris Poll, despite that added productivity and enjoying more time with their families, among other benefits, 66% of workers, still prefer working in the office.

The End Is Not as Near as You Might Think

For my money, I think the notion that COVID-19 as a death knell for offices as we know them is overblown, in the vein of “video killed the radio star,” and anyone who was around in 1981 knows how that turned out. For those of you who weren’t around in 1981, let me put down my Walkman and explain: MTV launched in 1981, and the first video the network aired was for a song by the Buggles called “Video Killed the Radio Star.” And while it was not prophetic, it ushered in a dramatic if transitory change in the way music was consumed. In the end, video did not kill the radio star. Radio still exists, as does video, and heck, even vinyl has made a comeback. These all peacefully coexist alongside streaming services and other new ways of consuming music.

I think Twitter gets it right. COVID-19 may serve as a catalyst for more companies to follow Twitter’s lead and let their employees work from home, at least part time. My hope though, is that more companies will take a long hard look at why people want to work from home. There may be reasons beyond their control, for example, a difficult commute, but perhaps being sequestered in a windowless office or crammed in a cubicle next to the bathroom is not a positive or productive experience for an employee. And as companies explore how to safely bring their employees back to the office, there is an opportunity to create a better, altogether different workplace experience. Perhaps the space freed up by employees who choose to continue to work from home could be put to use creating “just right” workspaces for their onsite colleagues.

Wouldn’t it be great if rather than ushering in a new era of dystopian surveillance, COVID-19 heralded the beginning of greater choices for employees, with flexibility to work from home balance by a workplace that support mental and physical health, in-person collaboration and productivity?

So what does the future hold? Home office or office-office? Some hybrid of the two? Or perhaps we let go of the notion that these are our only choices and go the more imaginative route by creating a better workplace, nearer to home and school, with enough space and quiet and sunlight encourage productivity—six feet apart sounds just about right.

Now it’s your turn. What does the ideal working situation look like to you and why?

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