Turn right at the Rosetta Stone

What’s happening to the virtual workplace and freedom to work from home? IBM caused quite a stir this year when they insisted employees come into the office to work, ending a long pattern of remote working. Chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso explains the importance of working in the office: ‘There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun, when they are shoulder to shoulder.’

Reddit, in 2014, asked all employees to relocate to San Francisco with the CEO at the time, Yishan Wong, stating ‘Big efforts that require quick action, deep understanding, and efficient coordination between people at multiple offices just don’t go as well as we (and our users) needed.’ Even the mighty maverick, Google, has joined the reverse on virtual offices. Chief financial officer Patrick Pichette, has said ‘as few employees as possible’ work from home, and that working in the office is really important.

If some of the supposedly most liberal companies are restricting the freedom to work at home, is this the dawn of a new Draconian age? Yet, logic dictates that work doesn’t only happen at the office. As one of my previous colleagues grumbled, craving a quiet place to write in our lively creative environment, Sometimes the last place I can work is work.

The  big issue here is trust. Do companies trust their employees to make the right choice to do great work? There are reams of evidence on the benefits of the freedom to choose (sometimes) where to work: increased productivity and innovation, reduced sick days, decreased absence, increased motivation, savings on time, cost, travel and environmental damage.

It’s easy to see why homeworking is on the rise in the UK and why the US Congress passed the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010 requiring government agencies to set up a teleworking policy.

Obviously it depends on the work. Airline pilots, chefs, and security officers need to be on-site. Apparently you can do a bit of brain surgery with the aid of clever technology, but I’m not sure it would stretch to a commutable distance.

I’m lucky. I’ve worked in inspired creative agencies, I’ve been given the license to choose, and I’ve learned what environment works best for different tasks or moods. I’m at my most creative between 5am and 7am. Why? I don’t know, I don’t care, I just use it. Which means working at the kitchen table as the office might not be open.

I love writing in cafes – where there is the reassurance of other people but the ability to be anonymous. It’s also great to be around the office too, with a mix of formal meetings, teamwork and supporting people. Community and camaraderie thrive from informal contact. There’s a fluid creativity from random chats, bumping into someone on the stairs or in the kitchen. Great ideas are born from spontaneity.

Giving employees the choice shows the company trusts their judgement, encourages a vibrant culture and nurtures innovation. A few guidelines and good systems will keep things on track.

Far from distraction, sometimes the hardest thing is to stop. If you’re working at home, disconnect your online connections for a while.

If you want to encourage exchange at the office, provide informal spaces for people to cluster, or for reflection and quiet isolation.

Creativity can come from the discomfort zone. Getting your people into unfamiliar surroundings helps them find new ideas, new connections in the team, keep work relationships and work fresh. All that turns into productivity and profit.

IBM has great offices, but is this enough for people losing their freedom to choose? Just getting people into an office does not make them work well together.

I remember writing in the Members’ Room at the British Museum and was tickled to be directed to ‘turn right at the Rosetta Stone’. A very positive direction for a communications consultant, and a liberating notion for our choices of where to work.

So where is work for you today?

[First published in CorpComms magazine in 2013.]