Did COVID Kill the Office Culture?

While no one yet knows what “the end” of COVID-19 actually means, one thing is certain: it will be much more complex to emerge from lockdown than it was to go into it.

I will always remember Friday, March 13, 2020 as the day we shut down our office for what we thought at the time was a three to four week hiatus. No one could have guessed that we were in for 18 months of dystopia, which is probably a good thing because we could not have borne that reality.

However difficult those decisions were, they were thrust upon us. Companies that could shut their offices down did, and we all adapted with unforeseeable efficiency and optimism. Some aspects of this forced situation quickly emerged, at least in the short term, as better—commutes were eliminated, many of us reconnected with our families in ways we had not in years, and for those without kids at home, work distractions were eliminated and efficiency improved.

Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Parents without childcare (who have also become virtual learning supervisors), or those with elderly or sick family members to care for, have been especially impacted, as have employees with poor home internet connectivity or multiple roommates. One of my favorite quotes is “I am not working from home, I am home trying to work.” And while individuals with conducive work-from-home situations have been able to experience more flow and concentration than in the office, there is a wide body of emerging research on the psychological costs of continued isolation.

Now that we are twelve months into lockdown, many of those early benefits are starting to erode. The toll of quarantine is becoming real, as environmental psychologist Lee Chambers noted in a recent Vogue article: “The impact of lockdown fatigue on our mental and physical wellbeing presents differently in different people, but the overarching feeling is one of ‘exhaustion, lack of focus, and lower motivation’…Some describe these symptoms as ‘brain fog,’ and others have noted that their short term memory has decreased.”

So, how will this all end?

First off, this virus has kept the experts guessing time and time again. There are new emerging variants, uncertainty around how widely vaccinations will be accepted, and of course the logistic behemoth of procuring and administering vaccines equitably and efficiently enough to outpace the virus’s transmission. That said, let’s assume for a second that sometime in the third quarter we achieve a level of herd immunity in which local infection rates are very low, prompting companies to begin returning to the office.

The first question to ask is, why return to the office at all? We’ve thought about this a great deal at WillowTree. We certainly have team members who have indicated they are looking for a permanent work-from-home environment, and we understand that desire. However, for us as a company, we are committed to an in-office environment at least on a partial basis, for a number of reasons:

  • Human isolation, especially in the long term, is miserable for most of us. Working from home is not new in the tech industry, so over the years we’ve hired many team members who previously worked remotely. I cannot tell you how many of these hires have come to me over the years and expressed how much happier they are on a day-to-day basis being in the office, in a community of like-minded people. It’s no coincidence that one of the most brutal forms of punishment for human beings is solitary confinement.
  • It is well-documented that human relationships are stronger when conducted in person. Face-to-face interactions make it easier to discuss and resolve different points of view. Empathy increases when you see body language and get to know the whole person. Inclusion improves; you cannot ignore certain people as easily in a room as on Zoom. Experts who study the growing extremism in the Western world point to our pandemic isolation as a major contributing factor—we are simply not interacting with different people the way we do in the “real world.”
  • The Hallway Conversation is critical. Steve Jobs famously wanted all the bathrooms in the new Apple HQ to be in a single place to force random encounters. In a WFH world, every interaction is planned and intentional—there is simply no “bumping” into someone, triggering a reminder of something to discuss. Studies of innovative tech culture continuously point to the incredible importance of these interactions.
  • Random observability, which is a critical part of our in-person team structure, is impossible on Zoom. Inside WillowTree offices, managers and outside constituents can join a team informally, observe what’s going on, and make suggestions as appropriate. This participation is simply impossible on Zoom: virtual meetings are privately scheduled, and if you do happen to access an invite link, the presence of a senior manager “just hopping on” fundamentally changes the nature of a call. It’s much easier to give a disarming smile and take a seat in the back when joining a team meeting in the flesh.
  • Managers are drained. The word “Zoombie” has emerged over the last few months to describe how we all feel after a day of Zoom meetings: strangely unfulfilled, never experiencing flow, constantly distracted by multitasking and concurrent streams. While many individual contributors on our teams have experienced periods of higher productivity, managers and leaders report their lowest work satisfaction ever.
  • Virtual collaboration has left only the artifacts of teamwork. We rely heavily on multi-disciplinary teams that include members from strategy, design, PM, architecture, engineering, and product testing disciplines, among others. Pre-COVID, our team space white boards were covered in design and architectural drawings, and monitors showed the sprint burn down and testing results in real time. In remote workspaces, all of this is lost. Individual contributors can still excel at their jobs, but the collective give-and-take among team members, many of whom are from different “tribes” and perhaps wired differently, has been impaired.
  • WFH works okay when everyone is WFH. But when we return to the office, productivity and team dynamics will be quickly impacted if certain team members are in the office together and others are remotely joining in. As such, it will be critical that entire teams, not individuals, decide together when they will work in the office and when they will work from home.

We have made the decision that we will return to the office and rebuild our community, but we have also learned a great deal from COVID-19 and will be highly flexible as we return. We feel a hybrid model is critical: certain team members have found higher degrees of efficiency and creativity working from home, and we don’t want to lose that. Plus we all have gotten used to conveniences (e.g. folding our laundry while being on a call) that we don’t want to give up.

Our internal survey data and qualitative research suggest that an in-office model allowing for flexibility is key. This decision is confirmed by the conclusions of Stanford scholar Nicholas Bloom, who has studied the topic of remote work extensively. Bloom’s research indicates that a hybrid model gets us to the best of both worlds. The critical insight for us is that teams, not individuals, will need to decide their office vs. work-from-home schedules as a group. We will give teams that freedom, while also understanding that time is another variable in the equation. Perhaps teams will want to spend all or most of the first several weeks of a project together in the office, and then transition to more frequent telecommuting days as the team norms and finds its cadence.

There will be companies that will keep its workforce entirely remote, and there will be companies that will ask everyone to return to the office full time. We will do neither, and we believe that the middle path will be the optimized future of work, at least for WillowTree. The COVID-19 pandemic’s legacy will be that it killed the work-from-home stigma, but conversely, it has also taught us that being in a shared communal space, a.k.a. the office, is also critical to much of our well-being. In the end, COVID won’t kill off the office culture—just change it for the better.

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