The Invisible Office and the Future of Remote Work
The future of remote work could be at home, at the office, or somewhere else entirely. But work as we once knew it is no longer merely a place: It’s a state of mind. Even before life took a turn, we were already moving away from depending on physical space to connect with our colleagues. Work is in our pockets. Work is on our laptop.
We were already easing into this future – and now, we’re fully immersed in it. The stats speak for themselves: Before the coronavirus pandemic, only 14% of organizational leaders across all industries believed their company could support virtual work. Now, according to a Harvard Business Review study, that number is 42%.
But the majority of companies are still unable to fully support remote work. This is a reality that will disadvantage them in a tightening labor market, where the most competitive talent will demand flexibility.
So how do you transfer a culture from a physical space to a virtual one? How do you remake work processes that were refined over decades of face-to-face work?
The benefits of the invisible office are clear: Companies can operate with more agility, become an attractive destination for top talent, and foster an all-around better employee experience. Employees can cut down on time-consuming, environmentally damaging commutes while introducing more flexibility to their work and home lives.
The benefits of the invisible office are clear: Companies can operate with more agility, become an attractive destination for top talent, and foster an all-around better employee experience.
The challenges are clear, too: Workflows and processes built over decades, and based on traditional in-person office norms, are tough to rebuild from the ground up. But now, with strong leadership and well-established company culture, organizations can find success outside of the rigid rules of the past.
Virtual work at the office is not a zero-sum game
“The only way to truly create equitable, positive experiences for people is to give them a lot of choice over where they can work, when they can work, with whom they can work – and then make sure their choices are well-supported,” said Ryan Anderson, vice president of insights and research at Herman Miller, the office furniture company. “Giving people the autonomy to choose is not only in their best interest. It’s in the best interest of the organization.”
This might be surprising coming from a company known for inventing modular furniture that would later make up the office cubicle. But since its founding in 1905, Herman Miller has tracked the pulse of the American corporate life, designing flexible environments that respond to subtle shifts in how people work.
The only way to truly create equitable, positive experiences for people is to give them a lot of choice over where they can work, when they can work, with whom they can work – and then make sure their choices are well-supported.
RYAN ANDERSON, VICE PRESIDENT OF INSIGHTS AND RESEARCH, HERMAN MILLER
After World War II, Herman Miller released its first line of modular office furniture, suitable for a growing white-collar workforce. A quarter century after that, when Stanford University unveiled the first personal computer, Herman Miller designed an early PC workstation to support it. And then, in the mid-aughts, when mobile devices and 3G internet began untethering us from our bulky desktop computers, the furniture company saw an opening to talk about a new, more distributed workplace. It published white papers about remote productivity and a work from anywhere model. But the customers on the other end were not yet prepared to embrace it.
“Most organizations back then had a very binary view of work location: You’re an office worker or you’re a remote worker,” Anderson said. “Presenteeism is a lousy proxy for productivity. You need to think about how to enable people to work in more autonomous ways.”
Now that most of us have experienced remote work by pandemic-induced necessity, we no longer view distributed work with the same degree of skepticism as we did when Herman Miller first broached the subject in 2005. But just because the future of remote work is flexible and virtual doesn’t mean it will be easy.
For one, the physical changes to our work environment will not impact all companies or all workers in the same way. For most workers, including those at Salesforce, the new work environment won’t simply be a shift from office to home office.
Most of us will exist somewhere – or in multiple places – in between, embracing a level of flexibility for employees. We work in person a few days a week instead of five, or come into a shared space for specific tasks like presentations and meetings with out-of-town clients.
And although virtual work won’t be available to everybody – especially frontline workers, retail associates, and healthcare providers who need to see their patients in person – more and more companies will allow flexibility for those who can. The answer won’t be the same for any two companies, and it likely won’t be the same for any two teams within a single company. This is an ambiguity we’ll need to become comfortable with to reap the benefits of an evolving workplace.
“When I go to the office, it’s with a purpose,” said Michele Schneider, senior vice president of global workplace services at Salesforce. “I’m not going to the office, slogging in four or five days a week, because my manager’s there and I want to be seen or I feel like I have to go. I will be thoughtful about when I go.”
Presenteeism is a lousy proxy for productivity. You need to think about how to enable people to work in more autonomous ways.
RYAN ANDERSON, VICE PRESIDENT OF INSIGHTS AND RESEARCH, HERMAN MILLER
This is going to mean redesigning and rebuilding physical office spaces to accommodate the different types of work that they will be used for. Maybe a sea of office desks is replaced by more social, collaborative spaces. Smaller satellite locations could be added closer to where employees live. Or perhaps home offices are furnished to make them comfortable and healthy places to work. It also means changing mindsets from the top down and processes from the bottom up.
Physical changes start with cultural shifts
For any of this to work, we’ll need a culture that makes technology work for us. In our home lives, we integrate seamlessly with tech. We can control everything from our air conditioner to our music and our lights with the tap of a button on our phones.
How often do you feel that kind of control in the workplace? In a professional world where technology is the singular thing that binds us to one another across teams and time zones, it must also seem like a tool that knows us, allows us to do our best work, and doesn’t create friction.
“I use my phone for everything. I manage my windows, my alarm, and my irrigation system on it. The technology knows me. It knows what I need and knows how to help me,” said Jill Unikel, senior vice president of employee communications and engagement at Salesforce. “Over the past year, it’s become more important for companies to make sure their employees have the right technology at their fingertips to really be productive and to really be able to show up and do their best work.”
The answer won’t be the same for any two companies, and it likely won’t be the same for any two teams within a company. This is an ambiguity we’ll need to become comfortable with to reap the benefits of an evolving workplace.
Technology has made it possible to collaborate across time zones and keep information flowing quickly between teammates. But good technology isn’t enough to help us successfully evolve from the fully in-person paradigm. We will need to rethink even our most basic conceptions of work and expand our definition of what constitutes a team.
Without an organic, in-person office culture to learn from – no looking around to see when other people call it quits for the day – expectations for our work life will need to be defined explicitly. Instead of an office culture formed over years across an entire company, think localized teaming agreements. Individual teams will be empowered to create their own sets of explicitly stated norms and values. A frontline manager with a team of eight or 10 people can form a culture from the ground up by establishing a set of informal agreements: We will turn off work notifications after 7 p.m. We will conduct team-wide meetings in the mornings and leave afternoons clear for deep work. This model gives space for teams to decentralize and enforce smaller, more autonomous cultural spaces within organizations.
The term “remote employee” will be reframed in the coming years. It implies distance – the notion that employees are lone outposts. In reality, teams can be as close and efficient as ever with the proper use of technology.
Companies know they need to do this right. That’s why they are folding HR into workspace decisions traditionally led by facilities managers who report to real estate and finance leaders in the C-suite, said Anderson. Failure to promote an intentional culture and good change management amid the rapidly distributing workplace can result in what Anderson calls “false flexibility.” That’s when an organization outwardly promotes a culture of flexibility, but actually reverts to old habits, such as booking back-to-back meetings and favoring employees who show their face in the office more often.
I predict that the term “remote employee” will be reframed in the coming years. It implies distance – the notion that employees are lone outposts. In reality, teams can be as close and efficient as ever with the proper use of technology, informed by carefully crafted and explicitly stated team values.
Change leadership styles for the future of remote work
Companies seeking to make the most of this post-pandemic work culture will develop systems and a culture that break down silos and ensure smooth collaboration across departments. They’ll build strong ties not just with small teams, but with the company at large. They’ll foster a sense of belonging and onboard new employees wherever they are and make them truly feel like they are connected to their new company.
In addition to helping other companies adapt to a distributed work environment, Herman Miller is making these changes for itself. A company that manufactures and distributes physical goods requires practices that allow its distributed workers to seamlessly coordinate with in-person workers.
It’s become more important for companies to make sure their employees have the right technology at their fingertips to really be productive and to really be able to show up and do their best work.
JILL UNIKEL, SVP OF EMPLOYEE COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT, SALESFORCE
“These days, my default is to just get all hundred of us on a video call. The chat goes crazy on the right-hand side, and we’re much less formal now,” said Ben Groom, Herman Miller’s chief digital officer. “I’m seeing a whole different group of people speak up. There’s something pretty special about it.”
“I think a real hallmark of our approach, which is surprisingly low-tech, is just a sense of overcommunication,” he added.
The shutdowns resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak have forced companies to lean into technology and rethink models that have been in place for decades. A survey of executives by McKinsey Global Services found that companies accelerated their technological growth by three to four years in just the first six months of the pandemic. The arrival of vaccines and the return to normalcy is not going to slow this acceleration.
Without an organic, in-person office culture to learn from – no looking around to see when other people call it quits for the day – expectations for our work life will need to be defined explicitly.
It took decades for us to go from the first Herman Miller modular office sets to cubicles to open-floor plans. It has taken just months for us to reimagine the physical office completely.
“I think what will come out of this is really a shift of empowerment from the employer to the employee,” Groom said. “What will ultimately need to happen on most teams is far more decentralized decision-making as it relates to how best to set up an individual to be productive and successful in their job.”
The workspace of the future is not simply remote. Rather, it’s distributed across wider networks, of which work-from-home setups and offices are a part. As companies, we aren’t defined by buildings. We’re defined by engaged people – wherever they may be.