There’s Lots I Don’t Miss About the Office, But Here’s The One Thing We Can’t Live Without

John Hollon COVID-19, Innovation, Organizational Development, Workplace Flexibilty

Confession time: It’s hard not to LOVE Canadians.

I’ve worked with a lot of our Northern cousins, and I’ve found Canadians to be generous, helpful, and kind. They don’t wear their partisanship on their sleeve, as so many of do here in Lower 48 plus 2, and they’re pretty easy going unless required to be something else.

Yes, Canadians are very, very nice. They send America their best — people like Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Michael J. Fox, to name just a few — and it never seems to bother them.

That’s why I tread lightly when writing about one of my fellow Fistful of Talent bloggers who just happens to be a Canadian.

Lauren Welgush, an HR professional who describes herself as a “small town Canadian with big dreams,” is another one of those nice people from the North that I appreciate so much. But it’s an article she wrote here on FOT last month — titled 4 Things I Don’t Miss About the Office — that caught my attention because I have a different take on the points she made.

She wrote about working remotely, something that a lot of people (including her) have been doing due to the coronavirus lockdown. It’s also something I know a little bit about because I have doing for the last 10 years.

“A massive shift .. good for my sanity”

Here’s her main point:

“For me, working remotely has been a massive shift, good for my sanity and happiness and being able to focus on … business priorities. So, as someone who works as an HRBP, what am I not missing about the office?”

That’s a really interesting question, because over my decade plus as a remote worker, what lingers in my mind are the things that I miss MOST about not being in the office.

For example, Lauren says she doesn’t miss “being stifled by pop-ins,” and she adds that, “it takes an average of 23 minutes for an adult to get back into work after being interrupted. Those ‘can I ask you a quick question?’ interruptions add up! I also used to run around from meeting room to meeting room dodging questions from people.”

I get it. Working in an office environment can be tough, especially if you have people constantly interrupting and making it hard to get any work done. Having uninterrupted time to finish something without distraction is generally a good thing.

But there’s something else to consider, and it has troubled over the decade that I have worked remotely.

It’s this: What gets lost when you work remotely is the regular interaction with your co-workers. Zoom may help connect remote workers, but it has big limitations and severely limits spontaneous give and take between people.

Steve Blank made this point on Medium way back in April when the use of Zoom for those working remotely was still a new experience. The headline on his post says it all: What’s Missing From Zoom Reminds Us What It Means to Be Human.

Here’s the crux of his argument:

“Video conferencing … technology allows us to conduct business, see friends and transfer information one-on-one and one-to-many from our homes, (but) there’s something missing. It’s just not the same as connecting live at the conference room table, the classroom or local coffee shop. And it seems more exhausting. Why?

It turns out that today’s video conferencing technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Every one of these video apps has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

Collaboration is where the magic happens

Here’s my take: I’ve grown to hate Zoom and other conferencing apps for all the good reasons that Steve Blank lays out, but for me, it’s the personal disconnect with others that’s the biggest problem.

I agree that “pop-ins” when you work in an office can be distracting, but in my long career managing people I’ve found that it was those unplanned “pop-ins” and other casual office interactions that were incredibly useful.

For me, casual interactions are where the magic happens. It’s when somebody “pops-in” to ask a question on one topic and it leads to a discussion on another that helps to move the business ahead.

Humans do a better job creating and solving problems when they collaborate, and those lost pop-ins and other casual in-office collaborations are how that happens.

Zoom can’t replace those personal interactions, and managers who have been around for a while understand that while interruptions CAN be annoying, they’re also the price we pay to collaborate together for the greater good.

This post from Matter spelled out the problem:

The new distributed work environment has resulted in at least one sacrifice which is the decline in natural collaboration and spontaneous interactions, or unplanned meetings. We miss the figurative water cooler.

Many teams have embraced tools like Slack, Tandem and the like to signal when they are available to connect with teammates to work on problems, and make decisions and to problem solve asynchronously to support new idea generation done outside of a meeting.

However, we heard from many that an open challenge remains to enable and maintain the culture of innovation, to stay focused on adapting the business model, while navigating the disruptions in our daily lives.”

Great workplace cultures thrive when you have workplace collaborations that drive creativity, innovation, and problem solving. That’s true in the U.S., Canada, and every other capitalist-driven society in the world.

So take it from a long-time remote worker and manager: Although there are many things I don’t miss about the office, having people pop-in to chat and collaborate is not one of them.

In fact, it the one thing I worry about losing the most. I think you should, too.