The Case for (Sometimes) Working in Person

Over the summer, Jotform opened its sixth office worldwide in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul.

It’s a sight to behold: Set among the trees of Belgrad Forest, our new digs have huge windows that showcase magnificent views, super fast Wi-Fi and ample space for Jotformers to do their best work.

You might wonder why, in an era favoring WFH, we decided to invest in even more space. After all, one survey found that a whopping 70% of businesses have shut their office doors permanently since the pandemic descended in 2020. Workers are often more than happy to quit commuting, and many say staying home promotes better work/life balance. Despite initial reservations, employers, too, have found that their employees are more productive while working remotely than they are in the office.

I’ve always been a supporter of flexible work arrangements: Even before Covid, I encouraged my employees to pay attention to their peak hours, and come into the office when it made most sense to them. When offices closed in 2020, our pivot to work from home could have been harder: With +250 employees spread across two countries and several time zones, we’d had a bit of practice.

As much as I believe in the benefits of working remote, there’s a lot to be said for interacting face-to-face.

Working in person builds camaraderie

Since people began flocking to cities around the Industrial Revolution, coworkers have been central to our sense of purpose. Back then folks were probably more likely to be baking bread shoulder-to-shoulder than leaning into cubicles for a quick chat, but the sentiment was the same.

“In our modern work, we still crave connections, and these are often most rewarding when we’re in the trenches with co-workers developing the bid for the customer or working through the issue that crops up with the new product launch,” sociologist Tracy Brower writes in Forbes. Sure, we form other relationships in other ways, like volunteering and social clubs. But there’s a specific sort of bond forged through problem-solving that’s tough to replicate elsewhere.

In Harvard Business Review, Art Markman writes about the phenomenon of “goal contagion,” which is what happens when you adopt the goals of the people working around you. “When people feel connected to the mission of the organization, it improves their overall satisfaction with their work,” he writes. “Believing in what the organization wants to accomplish reinforces that sense that a job is a vocation or calling and not just a way to earn a paycheck.”

And as the pandemic reminded us, humans are social creatures. The degree to which we crave interaction of course varies by person, but on the whole, research has shown that if we don’t have sufficient exposure to others, we experience declines in wellbeing and increased susceptibility to illness.

The flexibility of hybrid work

As useful as tools like Zoom and Slack have been over the course of the pandemic, they do not replace the casual chatter that was a fixture of pre-pandemic office life. “Many people hanker after the socialising, camaraderie and shared experience, even if getting used to it again may take time,” says an article published in the Economist. One study, which polled 500 participants from companies of all sizes, found that remote employees most missed in-person workplace conversations, as well as the opportunities for lunches and happy hours with colleagues.

Companies like Google, who credit spontaneous interactions for the creation of both Gmail and Street View, designed its headquarters to ensure that no employee is more than a 2.5 minute walk from anyone else. Pixar took it a step further, locating its bathrooms in the central atrium so that workers from different teams would interact on the way.

The Economist points out that any amount of remote work cuts down on these interactions. One estimate found that spending an average of three days each week in the office can limit encounters by 64% compared to pre-pandemic norms. That gap widens to 84% if you cut the number of office days down to two.

While some workers may pine for the days of cross-team chats on the way to the restroom, hybrid work can be a great compromise for those of us who crave the social interaction of the office but also like the quiet of WFH.

According to Gallup, workers spend their time differently depending where they are. If they’re on site, employees prioritize collaborating with colleagues, meeting with their managers, and using technology unique to that location. At home, they tend to focus on personal work tasks, and are also able to take care of other life responsibilities, like picking kids up from school and running errands. Done right, hybrid work can be the best of both worlds.

The importance of structure

Though plenty of people are content filing reports from their kitchen table forever, others miss the structure of being in an office. One common complaint among the work from home set is that there’s no clear delineation between being “on” and “off.”

Having an office can make it easier to leave work at work, since there’s a physical separation (and, most likely, a commute in between). It’s incredibly important to give your brain time to rest, so the practice of being “always on” means you’re at far greater risk of burning out.

For many people, home may be a more comfortable place to work, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better for their productivity. Distractions, be it the neighbor’s dog or the call of a midday Netflix binge, can be the downfall of an otherwise productive afternoon.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to work. Some people are their most productive at home, typing from the couch. Others flourish in an office environment where an ergonomic chair and quiet workplace allow them to focus. Allowing your employees the freedom and flexibility to find a solution that suits them is ultimately how you’ll enable them to do their best work.

AUTHOR
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of Jotform and the author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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