At the beginning of my technology career, approximately twenty years ago, my attendance every day was compulsory. For my first job after university, I worked in a professional services role that required customer interactions, and as those customers were in finance, I had to wear a suit everyday.
Work back then was formal, and so was my attire.
Over time, the technology field became ever more informal, and honestly I have not wore a suit in five years. I went from going to the office every day, to not going at all for 1-2 years, just like everyone else during the pandemic.
Now that we are in the post-pandemic period, we may have expected a large-scale return to the office, but that has not materialised. It seems to me that our relationship with the office, as a concept, has changed forever.
From a leadership perspective, that has dramatic implications on our team cultures, in particular for social cohesion. I thought it would be interesting to discuss these trends, and I will use my own experiences as a frame of reference but I’m sure others listening can relate.
To give the episode some structure, I will use the following timeline of office trends:
Let's begin then by looking at private offices, something that few of us have experienced.
In their 1999 book "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams" by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister , the authors discussed the benefits of private offices for knowledge workers, namely having a private office with a door they they close in order to reduce distractions.
In fact the title of chapter 12 of that book is "Bringing back the door".
However they are not advocating a single person per office, for example on page 79 of the second edition, they say:
"But enclosed offices need not be one-person offices. The two- or three- or four-person office makes a lot more sense, particularly if office groupings can be made to align with work groups."
During my career, I did not receive a private office with my own door until I reached VP level. By then, I was no longer coding but as I was taking so many calls each day, I was happy to have a door that I could close in order to not annoy everyone else in the team with my constant chatter.
Weirdly we still have a corporate culture that treats a private office as a right of seniority, rather than a reflection of the type of work being carried out by the people inside the room.
There is still a place for private offices, but due to costs, they are largely dying out which is a real shame.
For most of my professional career, starting out as a software engineer and moving into various software engineering management positions, I have worked in an open plan office. I have never liked these spaces, as they are so full of distractions that impact upon the concentration of knowledge workers.
In my first role after graduating, I worked in a professional services department of a financial software company. I shared the same floor as our sales and account management teams, who were constantly on calls.
Many of the engineers, myself included, opted to use expensive noise cancellation headphones to at least enable them to control what they listen to, be it music, radio, or podcasts. Anything to drown out the din.
Ultimately the sales guys were doing nothing wrong, they were doing very important work, but they were unknowingly impacting upon the morale of the engineers who were building the very product they were trying to sell.
To help mitigate such situations, many of the experienced engineers asked to be able to work from home, to enable them to get into the deep levels of concentration required for some of their harder work.
Surely this is a failing of the modern open office design ethos: in order to get some real work done, many felt the need to abandon the office and go home.
In more recent years, I started to work at a company that had just opened a new office in my home city. Instead of renting their own office in an unfamiliar new city, it seems that many companies now prefer to rent desks in a shared office space instead, which allows them to grow organically by adding more desks until they are big enough to rent their own place and move out.
From a financial perspective, this "rent desks not square meters" model makes sense: you can add more desks as you add more team mates, rather than renting X hundred square meters of space that may remain empty until you hire new people.
However, from a productivity perspective, I found that working in a shared office space is even worse than an open plan office. Let me explain why next.
The shared office space experienced a hipster-fuelled boom in the 2010s, with companies such as WeWork leading the charge. From their website at the time they stated:
"Whether you need a desk, office suite, or entire HQ, we create environments that increase productivity, innovation, and collaboration."
It is that promise of easily scaling your space as your company scales that is enticing, along with the promised increase in collaboration as you mix with founders and knowledge workers from other companies in the same space. But how realistic is that?
From my own experience, you perceive the other companies sharing your building more with suspicion than collaboration, as you compete with them for office space, shared meeting rooms, kitchen space, and even sitting space at lunchtime. I never seen people from one company sitting with others from a different company at lunch for example, it just never happened.
Instead I sat with my own company team mates, so that you could talk freely about your current projects and issues. But you could not talk too loudly as you were afraid of who might be listening, so you and your team mates knowingly started to speak in code about certain projects and customers to obfuscate your conversations, which starts to become ridiculous very quickly.
Some other problems that come to mind from that period (note these may not be true of all buildings of course):
While I enjoyed the novelty of working in a shared office space, and the interior design and stylish vibe certainly impressed our guests to the office, that novelty wore very thin after a few months of dealing with the above issues. I really cannot recommend them, and feel the office design industry has gone from bad (open plan office) to worse (shared office space).
Once the pandemic hit however, those shared offices took a very hard hit. Let's discuss that abrupt transition next.
After the lock-downs hit, we were all sent home for 1-2 years. That dramatically altered the office culture that we had before, and the residual nature of those changes will last for years.
Gone were the casual conversations over tea or coffee, the drinks after work, the lunches in the park, or simply bumping into a colleague in the corridors.
Instead we all became avatars on Zoom or Slack, so much so that in many organisations, mine included, people had to be encouraged to switch on their cameras, simply to let others see what they looked like.
Speaking as someone who met my wife in the office, and always enjoyed the pints after work on Friday evenings in my home town of Dublin, I felt extremely sorry for younger colleagues during this period when their office-based social life was wiped out.
Apart from the social aspects, there was also the career progression opportunities. Human beings are social creatures, and are influenced via social events. A senior manager is more likely to promote someone they like and trust, and it is extremely difficult to build that trust when your face time opportunities are reduced to zero.
At this stage, I hope I am building a case for a return to the office. But does this have to be full-time?
In my opinion, in tech the office culture will never return to the way it was before. The so-called "Zoomer" generation, who grew up with tablets in their hands, place less emphasis on face time as older generations like mine.
Getting those folks to return to the office full-time is a red line for them. They are more likely to take a role with your competition instead, so unless the industry makes a joint effort for everyone to return at the same time, this is not going to happen.
The answer in my opinion is to go for a hybrid approach: let people decide when they come to the office, and when they don't. They can self-organise into schedules of meetings in the office, and quiet concentrated work at home.
Depending on their home set-up, some may prefer to come to the office every day. That should be supported to. Basically, the best response is flexibility, and the more flexible you are as a leader, the more loyal your team members will be: if work is shaped around their lives, it is sustainable in the long-term and they are likely to stay longer.
I believe our relationship with the office is changed forever.
Lets recap what we have covered today:
I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.
Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!
 : "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams" by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister - https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0932633439?ie=UTF8&tag=designireland-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0932633439
 : My original 2017 blog post on "Hell is a stylish shared office space" - https://techleader.pro/a/512-Hell-is-a-stylish-shared-office-space
File details: 19.9 MB MP3, 13 mins 51 secs duration.
Title music is "Still Cold" by Crystal Shards, licensed via www.epidemicsound.com
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