A recent Wall Street Journal essay provided a novel suggestion for repurposing large offices: turning them into a “clubhouse” or social space of some sort. Like many who have experienced remote work over the course of the pandemic, the author suggests that remote work lies somewhere on the spectrum of tolerable to preferable for most of us when it comes to actual heads-down work. This is likely news to no one, and most organizations have seen minor flashes of rebellion when suggesting mandatory return-to-office policies.
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However, most remote workers readily acknowledge that in-person encounters are superior for some activities, where human interaction is the focus rather than heads-down time on a task. Most companies have recognized this phenomenon and are attempting to recast offices as destinations, with social spaces and even yoga studios to attract workers.
The author of the WSJ essay takes this one step further, suggesting that the primary focus of the physical office be fostering social interactions. Aside from a few shared desks, he envisions spaces that resemble bars or cafes more than cubicle villages and workers leaving laptops and noise-canceling headphones at home for a day of interaction.
Do we need offices at all?
Many of the remote workers I’ve spoken to miss the informal interactions that come over a meal or cup of coffee. The few business trips I’ve taken since the pandemic were focused on in-person collaboration and idea generation, tasks that were far more effective than a video meeting with the same objective. A significant portion of that collaboration was accomplished over meals or in a hotel lobby rather than huddled over laptops, lending credence to the idea of a company clubhouse.
We’ve seen early iterations of this concept on large campus-style offices, where a single dominant employer has created a tiny city of sorts. In extreme examples, some of these corporate campuses contain dry cleaners, multiple eateries and coffee shops, daycare facilities and even five-star restaurants.
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The purported benefit of these campuses mirrors what many corporate leaders are suggesting: a set of interesting services and social opportunities will draw employees to the same physical location. However, outside the campuses that are located away from major cities, do we really need social spaces, cafes, exercise facilities and restaurants in urban centers that are already choc-a-block with these amenities? Furthermore, do corporations want to compete not only against their current market rivals, but as yoga studios, restaurants and coffeehouses? At a more fundamental level, assuming that most focus work takes place at employees’ home offices, will the average company need as much real estate in a clubhouse world?
If it’s neither a workplace nor a clubhouse, then what’s the future of the office?
If the argument for clubhouse-style offices is for collaboration and socialization, might it not make sense to extend that objective beyond an individual organization? For economic reasons, having multiple companies with individual clubhouses that would likely experience variable utilization seems like an opportunity ripe for consolidation.
Companies like WeWork have already made moves in this direction, providing spaces that are dedicated to collaboration and socialization as much or more than heads-down work. WeWork also hosts multiple diverse businesses, extending collaboration beyond the bounds of single organizations. Could there be a future when companies no longer own dedicated offices for their knowledge workers, but rather rent clubhouse access from a company like WeWork?
From a collaboration perspective, what if an insurance company, accounting firm, tech giant and consumer products company shared a collaborative space? If there’s such a strong purported benefit to cross-functional collaboration, wouldn’t that benefit be even more significant across non-competitive organizations? Imagine if rather than paying for industry conferences or external experts, you could take a monthly trip to the “collaboration center” and encounter a startup CEO, auditor, electrical engineer and social worker all in the same afternoon?
Tech leaders’ roles in the next-generation office
As tech leaders, these big questions might seem above our pay grades. However, many of the questions around the future of the physical office are being driven by the massive success of remote working. This phenomenon would not be possible without technology. As the people who helped power this shift in where and how we work, we have a unique understanding of the technical and human factors behind this transition. Similarly, most tech leaders have teams that can happily work from anywhere in the world, as well as support staff that are generally tied to a specific location, providing a unique perspective on the challenges facing most organizations as they try to balance knowledge and on-location work.
Take the time to follow the latest thinking about the future of the physical workspace. From a practical perspective, you might find your teams supporting wholesale changes in how systems and infrastructure are deployed. As a leader in the evolution of where and how we work, you should also be willing to provide guidance and thoughtful suggestions on the future of work. Whether the future finds us chatting with someone in another department over a hot yoga session in our company clubhouse or telling our children about this funny idea of companies owning huge buildings filled with cubes, we have a valuable voice in defining the future of work.
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