Whether workers or managers know it, the office is still important to a company’s success – critical, in fact.

As the Omicron wave of COVID-19 recedes, more companies are asking employees to return to the office. But with close to two years of remote work behind us – and with productivity surpassing most expectations – many workers are likely wondering why?

After all, if the last two years proved anything, it’s that many kinds of tasks are performed perfectly well – perhaps even better – away from a centralized office.

But whether workers or managers know it, the office is still important to a company’s success – critical, in fact.

Remote work isn’t going away, and we’re not going back to the way we did things before. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to discount the role the office plays in a company’s success.

It’s about culture

The success of remote work has a few drawbacks, the biggest being the possible dissolution of a company’s distinctive culture. And culture is a thing that is really only built collectively, in person.

Work involves both action and interaction. We’ve learned from the last two years that action (i.e. the actual tasks) can take place remotely. But interaction – how people learn to work together, to identify each other’s strengths, to develop a unique dynamic – can’t happen in isolation. This is how cultures are built – and it’s why PwC’s US Remote Work Survey found 56% of executives expect to need more space over the next three years to “create a special experience in the office.”

By ignoring the office as a place of culture-building, CEOs risk losing control of their companies.

We’re not going back to the before times

It’s surely true that many, if not most, employees would be unhappy to be ordered to return to the office full-time. Matter of fact, the Morning Consult found that nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if their bosses made them do just that – a percentage that was even higher among millennials and Gen Z. The good news is that isn’t necessary. Instead, you need to figure out what cadence of in-the-office vs. at home is right for your company.

I should know. I’m the founder and CEO of a company that makes coordination software for companies to manage their in-house vs. remote work, and I’m not going back to the office full-time.

I used to be in the office every day at 7 am, staying until 7 pm. There is no way I’m doing that routine ever again, nor do I expect my employees to. Like everyone else, I love the 30-second commute from my kitchen to my home office in the morning.

But I still travel to our far-flung offices regularly to meet with colleagues, to get to know new employees and to, yes, build our company culture. I know this is critical to our success.

What needs to change

So, we need workers to come back to the office sometimes, when it’s appropriate. But how do companies entice their staff to come back, without it feeling like an unwanted mandate from above?

Instead of a routine, the company office needs to become a place of collaboration and creativity. It needs to be enticing, a place employees look forward to visiting when they need to.

Note that the Silicon Valley megacompany model – a giant where all employee wants and needs are satisfied – won’t do. That was designed to keep employees in the workplace longer than they normally would be. No one wants that now, and employees will vote with their feet if you try to force them.

No two businesses are the same, and thus no two solutions will be the same, but the Google or Facebook-style gigantic campuses will probably need to be rethought, if not actually downsized.

Office culture to café culture

A more useful analogy might be the coffee shop. Small-scale, comfortable, attractive places where people come together as needed to get things done.

Smaller scale may mean smaller spaces, but it certainly means fewer desks. Our New York office has just under 100 people, but we’ve retrofitted it with only 16 desks. Instead, we’ve added a café, a dining table, phone rooms, and breakout spaces.

Some companies are talking about ‘hot desking’ as a solution. This is asking the wrong question, because in a truly hybrid workplace, no one has their own desk.

It’s understandable that your workers might be reluctant or skeptical about returning. Here’s how to bring them back, when needed, and make them feel good about doing so.

  • Reeducate: Let workers know that the cadence of their work has changed for good – the flexibility they’ve grown to appreciate is not going away.
  • Reengage: Don’t force them back with a heavy hand. Show them that it’s in their interest to make occasional appearances.
  • Reengineer: Adapt the workplace to fit this new reality, and make it a place of creativity, collaboration, team building and career advancement.

This is not your parents’ workplace

This cultural change may take five years to complete, but change it will.

It’s tempting to say we’re reinventing community, but the truth is that the digital age and the pandemic did that for us. This is merely adjusting to reality.

Every company will need to find a cadence that works for both the business and workers, and those that get it right will be the winners. They’ll attract the best talent, which will create a better company culture, and in turn retain more of the best talent.

Right now, offices are empty, while the cafés and bars are starting to fill up again. Make your office more like a café and watch your workers return.

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Paul Statham is the CEO & founder of Condeco, where he has helped to shape the relationship between real estate and technology with one of the foremost providers of workspace management technology. He was previously Managing Director of one of the UK’s largest electronic security companies.

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