The death of the office — 5 reasons why it won’t happen
The COVID-19 pandemic took us by storm and fundamentally changed the way we interact: social distancing, face masks, sanitizing gels, and of course, remote working.
In the last 3 months, more companies went fully remote than in the last 10 years. Years of digitalization work have been done in weeks. Companies like Zoom saw their stock skyrocketing.
Remote working advocates have been quick to proclaim the death of the office and a perpetual WFH future. Personally, I don’t think that will be the case. I think we will flock back to our offices as soon as the situation allows it.
While the are pros and cons for each viewpoint, below are the top 5 reasons I don’t believe that remote working is not feasible in the long run.
“Can you hear me?”, “Can you see me?”, “You froze, can you repeat from…” , “my browser crashed, where were we?” — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Let’s face it: domestic internet connections are cheap and available, but they’re not reliable nor redundant.
Last time I experienced an outage, I took more than a week for the cable company to send a technician to fix it. Had I been dependent on it to do my job, it would have been a nightmare.
Domestic internet connections are cheap and available, but they’re not reliable nor redundant.
Office buildings have on-site technicians, disaster recovery policies in place, redundant internet connections, sometimes from different ISPs, all with premium support. Outages can be fixed in a couple of hours. A broken laptop or phone can be replaced in less than 30 minutes.
What happens when a domestic internet connection goes down!?! All our operators are busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us. Please wait and you will be attended as soon as possible. Followed by an old Shakira song.
I am lucky enough to have a home office. A room in my house dedicated to working remotely. With a wide monitor, comfortable office chair, noisy mechanical keyboard. Stress ball. Wall for post-its.
Others may not be so fortunate. Some may need to work from a shared room in their apartment. Their flatmates may not always be mindful or considerate. They have problems of their own and may not be in the mood of tiptoeing around the house just because somebody needs to focus or is in a meeting. The last thing I want in a video call with senior management is someone in their underwear eating yesterday’s pizza in the background.
Working from home may not be logistically feasible for an important part of the population.
The social aspect
Work has an important social aspect. The 8–9 hours spent in the office are the longest activity we do on a daily basis. More than we spend with our loved ones, our friends, our pets, our Playstations.
Personally, most of the friends I have, I met through my job. Current or previous. Because let’s face it: how do you make friends in your 30s? Or when you move to a new country? I can’t go to a bar and pick up a friend. Or through an online app.
The 8–9 hours spent in the office are the longest activity we do on a daily basis. More than we spend with our loved ones, our friends, our pets, our Playstations.
In order to establish a long-lasting meaningful friendship, we need common values and enough time together to form a bond. Early in life, friendships are formed on the playground, school, or university. Because that’s where we spend enough time together. Later on, it’s the office environment that provides that opportunity.
I remember in 2012 I worked from home, remotely, for two years. I was very isolated. I would meet people at the weekend. During the week, I would only put on pants when the pizza delivery would come. I don’t actually have any friends from that period.
Without an office, mine and a lot of others’ lives would be quite lonely.
The lack of effective communication
Psychology tells us that 55% of all communication happens non-verbally. Body language: position, gestures, use of space, eye movements. All these get lost over video-calls. We just see each other’s heads from weird angles.
Since I am in the process of transitioning to an engineering manager role, I realize how important for managers to be able to “read the room”. Discover hidden conflicts lurking around and address them before they spiral out of control.
Not all employees are straight-forward about their problems. Actually, I would say that the overwhelming majority of employees are not straight-forward about their problems. Body language and personal interaction around the office can give managers a lot of insight and allow them to address problems early on.
Not all employees are straight-forward about their problems. Actually, I would say that the overwhelming majority of employees are not straight-forward about their problems.
“You seem a bit distracted lately, is everything okay?” — a question that managers should ask their reports when they feel something is off. Hard to do when all the interaction happens over Slack.
Without direct interaction, it’s difficult to build team spirit. People that have never met each other are not a team. And team spirit is probably the most important pillar of employee retention. Every time I left a job, leaving my colleagues was the hardest part. Not the free fruits or foosball table. Or the boxing bag — yes, one of my previous companies had one in the recreation room. Guess who asked for it :)
Going through an onboarding process every few months for half the team is not economically feasible.
The difficulty of offering fair compensation
Without the need of going to a physical office, the geography becomes irrelevant, especially across compatible timezones. Which brings us to the Holy Grail of remote working: living somewhere cheap — and preferably hot, like some tropical island — and receiving a Silicon Valley salary.
At first glance, it makes sense: code written in San Francisco has the same value as code written in Eastern Europe or South East Asia. And should be compensated the same. Equal pay for equal work, right? But what is the definition of “equal pay” on a global scale? The actual number on the payslip or the associated purchasing power?
I took a look on Glassdoor at the median salaries for a senior engineer in San Francisco, Barcelona, my current city, and Bucharest, my home city, and they look like this:
- San Francisco 134k USD / year
- Barcelona 43k USD / year
- Bucharest 24k USD / year
If in the 3 cases, all engineers are being paid the same 134k salary, they will not be receiving equal pay. Their lifestyles will be completely different. The SFA based engineer will have enough to make ends meet and maybe save a bit at the end of the month. The one in Barcelona will be paid more than a lot of CTOs here. And the one in Bucharest will be in the entry-level corrupt politician range, earning more than some local businesses.
What is the definition of “equal pay” on a global scale? The actual number on the payslip or the associated purchasing power?
But what exactly is the problem from the company’s perspective? While the concept of and need for fairness can be debated, there are more pragmatic concerns to be considered.
Sometimes employees become disgruntled with their company. It’s normal. A bad manager, dull projects, toxic culture. Or plain old boredom. In normal circumstances, they would just resign and leave. It’s healthy for both the employee and the company. But what if the salary discrepancy between the current job and the local market is outright ridiculous?
Personally, I did take pay cuts to get a more promising job, but those were in the 3–5% range. Affordable. Not a life-changing amount. But how many of us will leave a job that pays 300% to 400% the market rate? The difference between buying a house in 3 years and buying it in 30 years.
It’s not hard to imagine what would happen with the performance and motivation of employees that want to leave the company, it’s just not economically feasible to do it. Not only they may not perform well, but their attitude may also be a strong demotivational factor for others. They can become the proverbial bad apple that spoils the whole bunch.
Companies need to pay competitive local rates, otherwise, they risk putting their employees in a golden cage in which they may not be happy or productive, but they may never leave.
According to their activity, companies need different levels of information security, some of which are incompatible with working from home. Trade secrets, confidential information that can affect the stock market, sensitive personal information that needs to be protected — all this data cannot be stored on employees' computers in their homes and rely on good faith to keep it safe.
The human part has always been the weakest link of information security.
Yes, we have firewalls and VPNs in place, but physical security plays an important role. It doesn’t matter how strong the encryption is if an unauthorized individual gets access to the computer. It can happen at any time: during a house party, a friend of a friend, a flatmate. Or even the employees themselves. Insider threats are more difficult to mitigate when they happen from the comfort and protection of one’s home. The human part has always been the weakest link of information security.
If the workers are scattered all around the globe, it’s even more problematic to enforce a meaningful security policy. Some jurisdictions don’t even have the legal framework required for transgressions to be actionable. And even when they do, the legal costs can be staggering.
So no working from home?
I think a flexible schedule is a way to go. The possibility of remote working is an important perk when looking for a job, but so is a cool office.
I feel that having a few days each week when all the team needs to be in the office is the best approach. Let’s see how it goes…