To Office or Not to Office?By Gabriel Manjarrez | Mon, 06/22/2020 - 08:14
As I sit here on quarantine Day Number-Totally-Lost-Count, I reflect on the enormous stroke of luck that our coworking space lease agreement (in Montes Urales, Lomas) was due to expire at the end of May. It gave us enough time to recognize the inevitable changes coming in the way we work, without having to stress ourselves with painfully paying rent for months on end. Most businesses were not so lucky and are now dealing with the realities of intransigent landlords demanding full or almost-full payment for office space that in many cases they cannot legally use. It’s hard to blame the landlords given the global context, but it still puts businesses in a bind. So, what to do?
We have 65 coworkers, with roles varying from call center operator to senior software engineer to finance/HR back office ops. We have been continually asking them about their work at home and how they would feel about the situation becoming permanent. In general, the replies we have received are along the lines of “yes … I guess?” Obviously, we are all tentative to answer from incomplete data, so we went a little deeper to try to suss out the sources of ambivalence and see if we could come up with solutions that did not involve another long-term office lease.
The first thing we did is measure, as much as possible, individual productivity. After all, if we had to hire 15 more people because the existing ones did less work in their home office, the whole exercise might be pointless. Everything that we could measure – and it was more than many companies do, since we are a little data nuts – indicated the current level of individual productivity was equal to or greater than that with the use of a coworking space. After that, we researched what companies we admire were doing. Since we have both tech and non-tech areas, we tried to get as broad a sample as possible. What we saw is that both in the US and Mexico, many companies were letting employees choose whether or not to return to a desk, and in many cases were doing away with on-premise work permanently. So, if Facebook, Citibank and Twitter could fundamentally change the way their workforce interacted with the business, we felt we could as well.
We went to each collaborator individually with a shortlist of questions. About 40 percent of the workforce were unequivocally in favor of permanently working from home. Most of that 40 percent have a stable home situation and very long commutes (Mexico City long, i.e. 90-plus minutes each way on public transport). For them, the time savings has been a huge boon. Another 30 percent felt mostly indifferent to the change, but had concerns about how the rest of their lives would look since that would significantly impact their stay-at-home work happiness. “Will my kids still be at home or at least have a summer activity to go to?” “Will my parents be able to babysit?” “Will the company pay for a faster internet?” These were some of the reasonable questions that came up. The remaining 30 percent were not a hard “no” but were less enthusiastic. A small percentage of these had unstable home situations, were living with roommates, or with parents in small spaces. The majority, though, spoke about the loneliness and boredom they felt in lacking a social work environment. They missed the hallway conversations and lunches with colleagues. They missed the cubicle-to-cubicle banter and the paper-ball basket dunking contests. The other 70 percent also missed those things, but seemingly less so.
Working from home has resulted in economic savings, yes, but at a social cost. We tried to come up with a balance for both. As a business, erasing the line item of office rent overnight was a welcome and much-needed respite from the general pandemic economic malaise. On the other hand, we have a good percentage of our collaborators feeling socially adrift. We by no means profess to have THE solution and I am sure there will be many iterations of this in the coming months, but our plan thus far is three-pronged:
- Ensure that our collaborators have a reasonably comfortable workspace at home. We are not buying them upright desks and 40” monitors, but on a case-by-case basis we will provide them with a good desk chair if they need it and pay a monthly bonus to upgrade their internet connectivity.
- As soon as legally feasible and medically recommended, we will rent meeting room hours in a coworking space that anyone can book for their team. If people need a space to brainstorm something new or just catch up on current projects, it will always be available.
- We will sponsor “happy hour” events for all the teams. Every month, each department will have a budget to take everyone out for drinks, amusement rides, video game arcade, etc.
We believe these actions will satisfy most of the concerns of our teammates while also acknowledging that, at least for us, there will be no going back to the old world of desks and offices for everyone. COVID-19 will change many things permanently. As business leaders, we can choose to recognize these changes and bend with them. Another option, as I have seen some companies already do, is trying to fight the inevitable and create antagonistic relationships with their employees, by, for example, forcing them to return to their offices. We believe the former attitude will be much more successful than the latter in the long run.