A Decentralised Work Environment Is Healthier And More Productive
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IndexRethinking Health, Security, and Productivity in the Modern WorkplaceShifting Work Culture and Employee Preferences
What was one of the big lessons about work that we all learned during the Covid pandemic? It became apparent that offices now seemed slightly archaic. Workers that have to come together for regular shifts on a factory production line need to be there, you can’t build a new car on a Zoom call, but for everyone in a professional job that mostly involves pushing email around the world, then why did we all follow the same commuter model for so many years?
Now that we have virtual offices in the cloud, teams can work together regardless of location. Forcing teams to commute to an office daily seems about as archaic as black-and-white footage of early factories. Offices became the factories of the twentieth century, but we are almost 23 years into another century now.
Rethinking Health, Security, and Productivity in the Modern Workplace
I’ve had flu recently, and as I was trying to work out where I might have caught it, I started talking to colleagues and thinking about some of the advantages of a more distributed work environment. Let’s consider just a few of the ideas we discussed.
Illness: I can’t be sure that I got my flu from the office, but there is a close connection between a recent visit to the office and my illness. This affected my work for around two weeks, so apart from feeling rough and needing to sleep all the time, there was a direct effect on my company. This is multiplied if someone arrives in the office vowing to ‘push on through’ their flu, and yet the end result is to give the illness to twenty colleagues — does anyone ever quantify these costs? During the Covid pandemic, it was unthinkable to meet anyone if you had any symptoms, but are we now returning to the days when colleagues sneeze and cough all over their office companions because they don’t want to be seen as needing any time off?
Fraud and Security Information: The traditional view on security has always been that an office environment is best. You can lock down the network with a firewall and use access controls to ensure that only employees are allowed inside. However, this starts to look dated when you realise that many employees can move information around as they please once inside the firewall, and if they are up to no good, they can easily plan and work with others. A distributed organisation has proactive security that looks for unusual behaviour. Different parts of the network will be shielded from each other intelligently — so a lateral flow of data is impossible. This means that even if a hacker breaks into a distributed network, they should not have access to everything. Distributed is far more secure.
Productivity: Offices are really not all that good for productivity. Yes, there are some times when in-person meetings are useful, and some casual encounters in the lobby or by the coffee machine can result in new ideas, but the reality is that for ‘head down and focus’ work, offices are terrible. The FT recently ran a story about a new phenomenon called ‘desk bombing’ — the act of going up to a colleague and interrupting them without an appointment. Office colleagues often email each other, even when they can see each other, to create a ‘paper trail’ for the boss, but now there is a reaction against work interruptions that even has a name.
These are just three reasons why a decentralised work environment can be a dramatic improvement on a large team visiting the same office at the same time each day. Working in a large office with a group of colleagues is often unproductive, can be dangerous for information security, and can help to spread every cold and illness that children pass on to their parents.
Resisting vs Embracing Decentralisation
There is a long list of positive reasons for decentralisation as well. However, I’ve mostly focused on some of the persisting negatives of getting together in offices — without even mentioning the cost in cash of commuting time. I will explore how work is changing in future articles, but I believe the direction is clear.
Some executives argue for a return to more traditional working practices, but I often wonder why. Do they really not want to change? Do they want to monitor their team in person? Or do they not see the advantage of allowing everyone to work where they want when they want?
Companies in the US that want a return to 2019 are struggling to hire people. Nobody wants to commute to an office any longer. If you’re going to hire the best talent, then you need to build a decentralised team — now.
The world of work has changed dramatically since 2019. I don’t believe that being a commercial landlord will be so attractive for the next few years as companies adjust to a more distributed future.