A recent New York Times article discussed some recent research on offices that are struggling with feeling empty. After some employees began telecommuting, other people began working from home because the office was no longer an engaging place to be, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that turned the physical workplace in to a hollow shell. The work from home policy was working too well. Telecommuting went viral, and even people who preferred working in the office were opting to stay home instead.
A hollow workplace can be a major issue for a company, causing morale to drop and silos to strengthen.
A hollow workplace can be a major issue for a company, causing morale to drop and silos to strengthen. Employees stop having those serendipitous hallway moments that generate valuable cross-pollination. The shortage of face-to-face interactions can cause bonds between coworkers to fade and networks to falter.
Here are a few steps that a hollow workplace needs to take to get the office back to vibrant:
Revisit the goals of your work from home strategy.
There are many good reasons to offer a telecommuting policy to your employees. Maybe you want to create a parent-friendly environment and reduce the stress associated with commuting. Whatever your reasons are, list them out and make them clear.
Audit your policies to see if they’re supporting your goals.
Too often I see policies where telecommuting is “at the manager’s discretion”. As working from home becomes more and more common, this variability from employee to employee will cause challenges. If your managers don’t understand the goals of your policy, they aren’t going to encourage people to work remotely or on-site at the right times. On the other hand, if you do have an explicit policy, does it actually incentivize the right behavior and is it up to date? Also see if the way telecommuting is practiced follows or counters the policy.
Reflect on both the physical and cultural factors that drive your culture.
Try to figure out how and why many people started working from home. Look at external factors: Did you hire a large cohort, or did a large number of employees go through a major life transition? Have traffic patterns changed in your city? Internal factors could include an organizational redesign or a new approach to meetings. And finally, look at your physical space. If everyone has assigned desks, when a critical mass of people start working from home the office will feel totally dead. Consider how all of these factors contribute to the workplace culture.
Start an honest, transparent conversation about the challenges and how to reform the situation.
Many managers would at this point be tempted to simply change the policies to align better with their goals, send out an office memo and be done. But that will likely damage morale and create resentment. Instead, create a conversation with the company. Ask if they think the goals are right, and then solicit suggestions for how to change the policies. Create a committee and have a neutral party facilitate a serious conversation.
If you follow this process, the final phase—changing your work from home culture—will become clear. Along the way, you’ll have gathered buy-in from your employees and started a broad dialogue about the future of the company and workplace.