Company culture

There’s something to be said for interaction between colleagues and co-workers at the office

Company culture

As I write, SA is in the eye of the COVID-19 storm. We are on day one-hundred-and-something of lockdown and most of us are still working remotely, which for many is a desk in the jungle called home.

Still, teams have learnt how to communicate effectively using a myriad of now-familiar tools, and managers (some) have become adept at leading remotely, learning to trust that their associates are actually at work even though they cannot see them. We’ve surprised ourselves in how productive we have been – so much so that employers around the world are rethinking their attitude towards working from home. Of course, this isn’t a new trend, but there is no doubt that the lockdown experience has accelerated this.

Companies from Facebook to Fujitsu have announced they will permanently embrace working from home, for at least part of the week or for part of the workforce. In a recent article, rating agency S&P Global notes that the surge in remote working will result in a gradual reduction in office space utilisation. Locally the trend is similar. In a recent FNB survey report, property strategist John Loos comments that ‘remote work has become a key potential challenge to office market performance on top of SA’s long-term economic stagnation’.

Is this really a good idea? On the one hand, it makes sense. Office space is probably one of a company’s biggest overheads. But, what if office space is also your biggest and best investment? There were days, pre-lockdown, when I left our offices brimming with ideas, thanks to my quirky, clever colleagues who talk too much but think differently to me and are full of observations and commentary about the world around us. I miss that inspiration – and a Zoom meeting will never cut it.

The late Steve Jobs put his finger on it back when he was running Pixar. ‘Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say “Wow” and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.’

At the time, he designed the Pixar offices to be more like a campus, to foster creativity and encourage ad hoc, unscheduled meetings. The people who worked there produced some of the most amazing animated films of all time.

Face-to-face teamwork isn’t just about stimulating ideas. It also streamlines workflows, enhances productivity, collaboration, problem-solving and conflict resolution. Imagine an HR manager who never came into the office, or a sales or factory manager who couldn’t communicate daily with the accountant? Some things just cannot be done remotely on a permanent basis.

How often are comments ‘lost in translation’ when you are engaging with someone on Skype, Slack or WhatsApp. As handy as these tools are, if you never get to ground your assumptions about someone it is easy to form the wrong impression. Our body language expresses far more than is conveyed in words.

In addition to productivity, a functional workspace contributes in other less tangible ways to the value of a company. The space that contains our businesses shapes company culture. Culture may be difficult to define and impossible to voluntarily shape, but it’s important. The working environment is second only to the team when it comes to cultivating a strong sense of common identity, cohesion and purpose.

And what about professional development, mentoring and upskilling of people – juniors, in particular? How will they learn, if not by example? How will they be motivated and encouraged, if not by example? Working side by side allows them to grow from the successes and failures of others in a supportive environment. It’s very much a self-fulfilling cycle, where accomplishment breeds accomplishment and success breeds success.

These young people are our future leaders, thinkers, industrialists and entrepreneurs. They deserve the very best of what the office environment has to share – and that is not to be underestimated.

By Sasha Planting