Do we need an office?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has now become an integral part of our daily lives, companies around the world are rethinking their policies around how and where the knowledge work is done. Approaches vary:

What is the role of the office in knowledge work? As we are trying to figure out our lives in this new era, I think it’s finally time to collect some thoughts.

Our work is deep

When thinking about the most efficient work setup, it’s necessary to first define the parameters which we are optimizing our setup for. In general, knowledge work in software consists of using our cognitive and logical capabilities to produce solutions to problems. The nature of these problems can vary greatly - how to implement a feature using a certain programming language, how to structure & resource a project to fulfill customer’s schedule requirements, how to solve interpersonal issues in a team, how to improve the flow of important information within a company, the list goes on and on.

All of these tasks fall into the definition of Deep Work defined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name

Deep Work
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
- Cal Newport

The opposite of Deep Work would be Shallow Work

Shallow Work
Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
- Cal Newport

Open-plan offices don’t work for deep work

In the pre-pandemic world, if you walked into an office of a random software company, chances are you would have found yourself in an open-plan office – a giant room with long tables, each hosting multiple employees sitting at their computers. You would have also probably noticed some conference rooms around the common area, to be reserved using a separate reservation system, with limited availability for focused work.

In January 2009, the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation of Queensland University of Technology did a large-scale literature review about open-plan offices and concluded the following:

In 90 percent of research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.
It has been found that the high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.
The research found that the traditional design was better - small, private closed offices.

In July 2013, Bloomberg called for Ending the Tyranny of the Open-Plan Office, quoting design firm Gensler

The collaboration-friendly environment with minimal cubicle separations proved ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered.

None of these findings are surprising to any software professional who has worked in an open-plan setting. Open-plan offices are designed to maximize the collaboration between people. Achieving the state of distraction-free concentration is seen as a secondary goal, usually addressed with a few separate spaces which, if you’re lucky, you can book for yourself for that exceptional moment of focus.

The Deep Work book has a nice analysis of the theory of serendipitous creativity, which states that when you allow people to bump into each other smart collaboration and new ideas emerge. We can reasonably assume that this theory is one of the underlying forces which caused the rise of open-plan offices (in addition to cost reduction and, in some places, increased supervision).

However, as Cal Newport analyzes the two most famous examples of environments that are often lauded for their collaboration & innovativeness – Building 20 in MIT and Bell Labs in New Jersey – an architecture emerges which doesn’t resemble an open-plan office at all. A hub-and-spoke architecture, which consists of private offices connected to shared hallways seems to offer the best support for both concentration and collaboration.

Cal Newport introduces two guidelines

First, distraction remains a destroyer of depth. The hub-and-spoke model provides a crucial template. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately, as opposed to mixing them together into a sludge that impedes both goals.
Second, even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so. By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone.

Combining these guidelines with research on open-plan offices, we arrive at the following optimal office design for software work:

  • The hub: shared spaces to enable serendipitous & voluntary encounters
  • The spoke: private, closed offices for enabling distraction-free concentration and deep thinking, sometimes to be used for working side-by-side with someone “in front of the whiteboard” (literally or figuratively)

Most of the co-located teams working in open-plan offices would undoubtedly appreciate such office redesign. However, choosing co-location is also choosing to give up all the benefits of remote work:

  • Being able to attract the best candidates from the global talent pool instead of limiting yourself to the local talent market
  • Giving your employees the flexibility of choosing their place of residence based on their preferences and life situation instead of having office location dictating the place to live. Usually, life situations change more often than office locations. You don’t want to lose your talent just because you don’t have an office at each location where life takes your employees.
  • Building a resilient organization with well-developed organizational memory due to emphasis on asynchronous, artifact-based communication instead of ad-hoc face-to-face meetings.

Remote work needs work

The coronavirus pandemic forced many previously co-located companies to make their whole workforce remote. For many, this meant working from homes that were completely unequipped for remote work. Many companies also moved their open plan office-based communication practices as-is to the remote setting, without considering the completely different set of requirements that remote working sets on communication when compared to the office.

For many, the initial feeling from this forced mass experiment was purely negative: Zoom fatigue, isolation, bad ergonomics, and the feeling of not getting any real work done. It’s no wonder that many teams would prefer to move back to the office, even accepting requirements for commutes & limited flexibility. This outcome shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, though - given that the amount of consideration given to efficient remote work setups was in many cases similar to the amount of consideration usually given to enabling deep work in open-plan offices.

When designing efficient remote work, there are two main areas that I’ll cover today - how you organize your communication, and how you organize your actual physical working space. The third main area, the very foundation on top of which everything else is built, deserves its own post: how you organize your daily routines to take care of your health - both physical and mental. For now, I’ll just mention some recommended reading.

The best book I’ve read on remote work design is Effective Remote Work by James Stanier. If I would have to choose a single sentence from that book, it would be this: Treat everyone as remote. This very simple guideline goes surprisingly deep, from organizing your communication & documentation practices to including furniture costs of home offices in your company budget.

For communication practices, James introduces a helpful framework - The Spectrum of Synchronousness, which spans from fully synchronous methods of communication to fully asynchronous ones:

  • Video call / Face to Face
  • Chat
  • Recorded Video
  • Email
  • Written document
  • Wiki/

The main thread in the book is that you have to consciously choose your communication methods from the spectrum of synchronousness depending on the purposes of your message. For example, you have weekly one-on-ones in video calls, but you deliver company-wide announcements using e-mail which is easily archivable and searchable. Instead of showing the bug fix you did to a colleague standing next to you, you record before-after videos and attach them to your PR so your colleague can take a look once the workday starts in a different timezone. You use synchronous Slack chat when throwing around ideas about implementation details with another programmer, but you document your final architectural decision with a clearly explained context in the company wiki so that it’s there for your new hire two years from now.

Remote deep work

What if we would combine the hub-and-spokes model known to enable deep work in an office setting with what we now know about efficient remote work practices? What would a remote deep work look like?

The Spoke

In an office setting, the spoke was defined as a private, closed office for enabling distraction-free concentration and deep thinking, sometimes to be used for working side-by-side with someone “in front of the whiteboard”. In a remote setting, the spoke consists of both physical space and communication.

Physical space
In the optimal case, this would be a private, closed office. If you’re currently living in a large city, this probably sounds either completely unrealistic or just pretentious, but please keep in mind that remote work enables people to live in a place of their choosing, and that place might not be a large city with absurdly high office rents. A few years ago, I spent a month in my home city in Eastern Finland and the office rent was 150 EUR ( ≈ 150 USD) per month for a spacious, private office in the center of the town in a beautiful historical building. Smaller cities, towns, and various rural areas create opportunities for completely new lifestyles for knowledge workers – to have a focus in a private office which might seem like a pipe dream for those sitting in a crowded open-plan office in a large city.

But let’s say you have a preference for living in a large city or have other factors which keep you there, such as your family responsibilities, aging parents, or career opportunities of your significant other. In such cases, a private office might not be attainable for a cost that your company or yourself are willing to cover. To be able to work efficiently, you still need a space where you can avoid distractions for long periods. In some cases, coworking spaces might fit the bill, although most of them are designed more as hubs and less as spokes - more for socialization, less for focus. Some coworking spaces offer a combination of private rooms & common areas – if you can find one for a reasonable price, take it.

In most cases, your best long-term bet will be the home office. Again, let’s start with the optimal case: a separate room with a door that you can close and where you can set up your working equipment – a working chair & table with good ergonomics, monitor(s), keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals. Chances are, if you’re living in a large city with high real estate prices and you don’t have remote working past, your house or apartment doesn’t have any extra rooms. This is quite common since up until the pandemic, the majority of people have been optimizing their living location based on proximity & quality of transport connections to their offices. That optimization has led many people to flock to central city apartments with sky-high prices & small living areas with no rooms to spare.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen the opposite of this trend happening around the world. With the demand for dedicated home offices on the rise, people are moving from their tiny central studios to less central apartments with more bedrooms. The underlying force can be seen as both a necessity and as an opportunity. It’s a necessity when you are forced to move to a larger apartment to get that home office so you can work efficiently. It’s an opportunity when you can now optimize your living location on completely other factors than the proximity of your office. Maybe it’s the proximity of your aging parents who double as caring grandparents for your kids, maybe it’s the proximity of nature enabling you to spend more time outdoors. We all have different preferences, responsibilities, and values in life, and remote working allows us to make choices that are in sync with them.

However, moving to another location even within the same city isn’t always so straightforward, and it’s not something you can do on a whim. If a separate room isn’t a realistic option for you right now, the next best thing is to find some spot from any existing room and make it your office corner. If you’re not living alone, have a serious conversation with other people living with you and agree on some ground rules around distractions. The biggest challenge I’ve seen again and again in home offices without closed doors is that other people assume that having visual contact with you implies that you’re available for any conversation. Make it clear that even though there is no closed door due to the limitations of the current apartment, everyone must imagine that a closed door exists – even if they see you. Yes, this also applies to spouses and kids. As a last resort, a true and tested method for open-plan offices is to use noise-canceling headphones.

Let’s talk next about communication. For many companies, supporting remote work has meant setting up a Slack/Teams account, creating a bunch of channels, leaving all the default notification settings on, and expecting that everyone in the company remains available in Slack for the whole duration of the work day, and reacts to any message sent in Slack in a nearly synchronous manner.

This is akin to having everyone in the company attending multiple all-hands meetings at once, for 8 hours a day, with no agenda and no schedule. Needless to say, this communication strategy does not enable distraction-free concentration, deep thinking, or any efficient work for that matter.

When working remotely, you have two doors to close. First, close the physical one. Then, make sure to close all the virtual “doors” you might have. You need a period where you aren’t bombarded with chat notifications, social media mentions, e-mails, or whatnot – real emergencies & on-call duties aside. You might decide to keep Slack open and just adjust the notification settings, or you might decide to quit it completely for the period of your deep work. You might decide to use the DND mode of your operating system to apply this approach system-wide.

My approach is to use the Pomodoro technique (25min intervals of deep work, followed by a 5min break) and I often quit Slack for the duration of a deep work session. While writing this blog post, I’ve also used the ultimate focus technique of them all - turning my WIFI off.

While in the spoke mode, the most appropriate methods of communication will be found from the async end of the spectrum of synchronousness - working on written documents, Wiki posts, README files, and, of course, code. Even though my own most productive programming sessions have often happened on trains and airplanes, we can easily replicate the same effect while working remotely - certainly much easier than while sitting in an open-plan office.

However, focused work does not always mean working alone.

By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone.
- Cal Newport

Our current tools enable us to utilize this whiteboard effect in any way imaginable. You can hop on a call while sharing a virtual whiteboard, pair programming in a shared IDE, or work on a wireframe together in a shared workspace. Sometimes a simple, short private chat is all that’s needed. Even if the tool itself - the chat - might be the same, the main difference between working “in front of the whiteboard” on a problem in chat and being part of multiple never-ending all-hands chats is that in front of the whiteboard, all parties contribute their undivided attention to the problem at hand, and there is a shared understanding of when this problem-solving start and when it ends. In all-hands chats, there’s no expectation of attention being undivided (usually it’s divided between multiple channels) and the conversation is rarely structured enough to have clear start and end points.

Before closing your chat and e-mail clients and ignoring all the notifications for 8 hours a day, remember that expectations around communication (response times, tools used, on-call duties) must be explicitly defined for the whole company. A company handbook in your Wiki is probably a good place to start.

The Hub

In an office setting, the hub was defined as shared spaces to enable serendipitous & voluntary encounters. By definition, there are no shared physical spaces in day-to-day work in a remote setting. The very nature of remote work with its heavy emphasis on focused, deep work in the spoke might lead to teams and organizations where team members start feeling isolated from each other, and instead of a well-functioning and gelled team you might end up with a group of increasingly isolated professionals. To counter this tendency, serendipitous encounters in the hub must be built explicitly into the remote culture.

The hub activities will be mostly found from the sync end of the spectrum of synchronousness - video calls and chats. A common method is to have Slack channels dedicated to unstructured, voluntary chatter. If you’re a small company, a single #random channel will probably do it. In larger organizations, you might have a long list of channels based on common interests or events not related to work.

If you have been working in an office setting, you have probably experienced the special atmosphere on Friday afternoons – the week’s worth of work is done, people are more relaxed, chatter about weekend plans can be heard, younger folks are deciding where to go for afterworks, older ones are leaving a bit early to start weekends with their families. To be honest, it’s next to impossible to replicate this atmosphere remotely, but there are still plenty of ways to break the monotony of never-ending, serious & efficient remote work by injecting some stints of social & fun activities.

Some fully remote companies organize co-located get-togethers a few times a year. If you can spare some of your company budget on that, great! Maybe even acknowledge the importance of family support of your remote workers and invite their avecs. But while meeting with your global team once or twice a year face-to-face is nice, you will need something happening at more regular intervals. Things like remote gaming sessions on Friday afternoons, remote drinks, group rides on Zwift (if you’re a cyclist, you know what I’m talking about!), or whatever works for your team. As with everything remote, explicit communication & expectation management is of utmost importance. It’s up to you - the manager - to take the initiative, communicate that it’s fine to spend a few moments on a Friday afternoon socializing, and make it a routine.

The future of work

So to circle back to the opening question, what is the role of the office in knowledge work? Even though I might be personally biased towards fully remote work, I don’t believe that we will see a completely officeless future. For many people, co-located places to work are important, since they provide a sense of camaraderie and the ability for face-to-face connections, something that remote work might not provide for everyone. I have met people who have said that they are ready to resign and find a new place to work if their company decides to become fully remote. I have also met people who are ready to resign in the opposite situation.

This is not surprising, since people have different preferences, and those preferences may also change over the lifespan of each person. That’s why it will be impossible for every company to be a workplace for everyone. For smaller companies, I think we’ll see more specialization - office-based or remote-based. Larger companies will undoubtedly try to combine both models and offer hybrid workplaces with offices & remote work combined.

The hybrid model is the most challenging of these three to pull off, especially if members of the same team are partly co-located and partly remote and the “treat everyone as remote” rule is not followed, causing remote workers to feel like second-class citizens. The hybrid model has a better chance of success if the office/remote split is done on a more granular level (say, fully office-based teams/departments vs. fully remote teams/departments).

Regardless of whether the future of work is office or remote, I certainly hope that the future of work is deep. Companies with noisy open-plan offices as their only option will inevitably lose the game in both talent acquisition and work efficiency to those companies who use the hub-and-spokes as their base framework for work design - be it in the office or remote.