I was at a conference not long ago where a speaker was telling a story about staying in a trendy New York boutique hotel. He had gone down to the lobby to use the free Wi-Fi and started to realize that most of the people working there were not hotel guests. They were people who lived in the neighborhood and were “working from home”. Many were working quietly, but he also observed people from completely different fields and organizations collaborating or giving each other feedback. Something about the hum of other people at work, combined with the anonymity of not actually working directly with any of them, produced a productive environment for this group of people. And he said he came to a realization that, “people want to work in an office. Just not yours.”
For better or for worse, much of my career has been spent as a virtual worker. Sometimes I’ve had an actual office to go to when I wasn’t working at home or on the road, sometimes not. Now that I’m my own boss, a bad commute is the dog getting underfoot as I walk down the hall to my office, if someone ate my lunch I’m pretty sure it was my husband, and I get to hold meetings at coffee shops and bars instead of conference rooms. I’ve experienced firsthand that productive hum, and the periodic desire to have someone to bounce ideas off of even if they aren’t involved in my business. I’ve come to learn that I work well with this nomadic lifestyle, but I’ve also seen people who need more structure crash and burn as telecommuters. It’s not about smart or dedicated, it’s about finding the environment where you thrive.
As the construct of the employer/employee relationship changes, individuals need to be self-aware enough to understand their environment and experience needs, and organizations need to be increasingly aware of what type of environment and experience attracts the type of talent they need. Particularly those jobs that don’t require a fixed time and place of work will need to rethink real estate and the physical work experience they create, as well as the organizational culture required to support employees.
Understanding the needs of the workforce your particular goals require, and being able to offer structure for those who need it, flexibility for others, and the technology to support both, will be an ongoing challenge. Just like in the movie Office Space, some people need to know where their stapler is at all times. Other people are ready to knock the cubicle walls down. Do you know which you are? And more importantly do you know which your company needs so you can create the right environment?