Do we still need old-fashioned physical offices to do work?
Contrary to reports that the demise of the office is near, I believe we still need physical offices; and more importantly physical interactions. I believe that the model that will be dominant for most types of organizations is a hybrid between being a mobile worker and being at a physical office.
Duh? Yes, it’s an obvious answer but I don’t most businesses look at it this way. More importantly, before considering whether or not you need a physical office, the real issue your must consider is culture.
One way that startups and corporate giants are adapting to this new way of working is by investing and building fancy looking offices to present themselves as innovative companies to work for. The truth of the matter is that culture trumps office design. Sure, your work environment influences your attitude but at some point we all become accustomed to our surroundings and then it just becomes a blur in our mind.
In my line of work I’ve tested both scenarios, physical and remote; that makes me a mobile worker. I’ve had an office at a nice looking co-working space for 3 years, and work with people who are scattered around the globe that have never physically met each other. Both experiences have made it increasingly obvious to me that there is a need to physically meet. It isn’t just boomers who I’ve seen have a hard time adapting to this new way of working, even people in my generation, millennials, need to meet at some point.
It’s very important to consider how different generations are adapting because beyond the bond that can be developed between people by physically meeting your colleagues, it is a leadership imperative to shape culture from the beginning. As Louis V. Gerstner, former CEO of IBM once noted, “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game.”
An office, not matter how pretty and inspiring it might be, doesn’t determine culture. Rather, people determine it. And for the purpose of innovation, one of the main ingredients necessary for it to happen in any type of environment is interaction.
Innovation happens in the unplanned interactions between people who have never met, much less had an interesting conversation. And we can engineer interactions to happen serendipitously, that is the starting point when thinking about the purpose of a physical office; the question isn’t about whether or not we need a physical office, it’s about how we design our work to get the most out of our interactions.
Bottom line: Innovation is an intensely social activity. What kills most innovation isn’t a lack of ideas, it’s a lack of relationships.