The pandemic has changed so much in our world, not least of which has been a seismic shift in work culture, as many of us have spent the past year working from home. Although in many parts of the world we are still in the thick of the pandemic, the rollout of vaccines is allowing us to think about a return to some level of normality in the second half of the year. And so I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about what this means for PLOS as we do – or in many cases, don’t – return to our physical office spaces.
The first key evolution in my own thinking is how we conceptualize and talk about our workforce model. In the past – and in my post at the start of the pandemic last year – I talked about “remote” working and employees. While this term correctly denotes that one person is physically separate from others, I’ve come to realize that we nearly always use this from our perspective as someone in the office with the embedded implication that we are a first-class citizen in the center-of-our-universe. This mindset usually assumes that the “remote” person is somehow less important and carries all the responsibility for communicating with the rest of the team. At PLOS, we’ve moved to talking about a “distributed” organization and teams: we all work together towards shared goals even though we are all physically separated. And because each of us is “remote” from the others, we carry equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate with the rest of the team. This feels like a critical shift in mindset for me, especially as PLOS hires new team members across the globe this year.
Nearly twelve months into our enforced experiment, the limitations and benefits of working in this way are much clearer. (Of course, we have to remember that there is a big difference between a functional, fully distributed organization and being quarantined with the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic.) At PLOS, it’s evident that a hybrid model of distributed and office-based work is here to stay, supported by modern digital connectivity. As we look to the future, our starting point is to reflect on what we’ve learned over the past year: the vast majority of our work can be done successfully in fully virtual form (indeed, PLOS’s 2020 results are the best since 2013). Many of our staff have found that they like working from home (WFH) and are more productive, although it’s important for us not to underestimate the ways in which some, notably parents and women especially, have been negatively impacted. Plenty of independent research mirrors our experience and backs up the potential benefits of more WFH both for employees and organizations.
Over the past year, PLOS downsized its San Francisco office space by over 50% (this was already underway pre-COVID as we sought to access pools of talent without the cost-prohibitive constraints of the Bay Area). As we’ve been building out our new space, we’re taking the opportunity to update our Cambridge, UK space as well. We know, in both cases, that our staff do not want to simply return to how things were at the beginning of 2020. A staff survey last fall told us that:
- Just 2% of staff want to be entirely in an office; 25% want to be fully remote and the vast majority prefer 2-4 days per week in an office. And we’re not unusual — surveys done since the start of the pandemic show that 75% of workers want their employer to provide flexibility of work location after the pandemic ends.
- The most valued benefits of WFH were more flexibility to balance professional and personal lives, greater productivity, liberation from long commutes and yes, more doggy-care time!
- The biggest challenges were managing home schooling, reduced opportunity for collaboration and workspace challenges/interruptions. And although we didn’t ask specifically in that survey, we know that many also feel depleted and exhausted due to COVID-19 fallout and isolation.
For the most part, our teams were able to adjust to working virtually quickly and about 40% felt they were just as productive, a finding backed up by many other surveys. (To be clear, my comments here are focused on the knowledge workers who make up the vast majority of our industry. The pandemic has of course had a devastating impact on many workers, especially those in low-wage jobs that cannot be done remotely.)
Fundamental to PLOS’s future will be much greater flexibility: there are too many personal and psychological factors at stake for a one-size-fits-all model. But while I personally will be one of those people who spends far less time in the office and fully supports this transition, I worry about whether the productivity and relative satisfaction this past year has been possible because of the social capital built up through countless conversations, meetings and connections before the pandemic. Will some of this erode over time with less physical interaction? Will collaboration be impaired? Can we mentor and develop our teams effectively? Answering these questions requires us to challenge our assumptions about how work gets done and the role of our office spaces.
Reimagining workspaces for collaboration
Pre-pandemic, PLOS’s office space looked like many others. Cube farms had evolved into open-plan, contiguous desks with the idea of both democratizing space and fostering collaboration by making people more visible. But in fact, the reverse appeared to be true: empty desks as many worked from home a few days a week where they felt more productive with those who were in the office isolated with headphones.
In designing our new space in San Francisco, we’ve tried to rethink the role of our communal office space now that our teams are increasingly undertaking focused work elsewhere. Many of these shifts aren’t new, but they have been turbocharged by the pandemic. Increasingly, the physical office will be an add-on to virtual work where teams come together to collaborate, determine direction, and make decisions. Our workspaces increasingly need to support the kinds of interactions that can’t happen virtually; for PLOS, those will be collaboration, socializing and learning. As a result, over 50% of our footprint will be devoted to open, informal team-oriented spaces with soft-seating and collaboration rooms. (The remaining space is a combination of hot-desking zones, a kitchen area, and a “library” with both desks and soft seating for quiet work.)
The biggest challenge is going to be how to make a hybrid (i.e., mixing office-based and distributed) model work. To create the best, rather than the worst of both worlds, we will need to collapse the boundaries between being physically present in the office and out of the office. No one wants to return to videoconferencing that involves a group around a table with one or two others looking on from a screen and unable to participate! We will definitely continue to all take calls on our own devices, even if we’re physically present in an office, so that everyone is communicating in the same way. Strong communication will be key, optimized across regions and time zones, with written communication as the backbone of everything. All communication will require adaptation for distributed teams: nuanced in-person communication doesn’t necessarily translate online. For example, within our executive team, we’ve agreed when we use text, Slack, email, and phone as well as out own personal communication preferences.
But while new tools will be part of the solution, they’re not the full answer. Success is going to require a cultural shift, including re-envisioning processes and reconstructing them in different forms digitally.
We’ll increasingly need to think of our workspaces as not merely physical but also a digital/virtual space. We’ve been experimenting with new tools – such as virtual whiteboarding – and we’ll need to accelerate this work and move these to standard practice fairly rapidly. But while new tools will be part of the solution, they’re not the full answer. Success is going to require a cultural shift, including re-envisioning processes and reconstructing them in different forms digitally. It will also likely require new roles in our organizations and especially in our people teams.
Culture and social bonds
Workspaces are not only a reflection of the work itself but also of the values and culture of an organization. Although we’ve learned and appreciated new things about each other (I for one love the interruptions from children and pets and the ways in which they humanize us), lack of physical interaction has undoubtedly made important aspects of our work more challenging. Our experience over the past year suggests at least four key areas:
- Brainstorming and complex problem-solving. While tools such as Zoom and virtual whiteboarding have helped, most of our teams report this as a challenge. This is especially true when spread across time zones from the UK to the US west coast, an issue that will become more challenging as we expand global presence through 2021 and beyond. It seems inevitable that we’re going to have to shift a culture built on phone calls and meetings to one that is more comfortable with asynchronous communication and team work.
- Integrating new hires. There are a couple of elements to this: onboarding new hires to “how things are done around here” — our vision, history, processes, and culture; and sharing knowledge about the work itself. We’ve already flagged a need to overhaul our onboarding and the first of these feels easier to solve to me (for example, through video). In all likelihood, we’ll need to improve both documentation and the accessibility of documentation (currently strewn across a number of systems). I also suspect that onboarding has been particularly hard for those who are more junior in their careers and who haven’t yet built strong social and professional networks. While there’s work for us to do internally, this seems like an area in which SSP could play a meaningful role with virtual peer-to-peer networking opportunities.
- Fostering and deepening relationships. This is perhaps the one that I worry about most – how will we ensure that people don’t feel socially and professionally isolated and disconnected? In particular, it seems likely that interactions with those you don’t work with regularly will suffer, as will casual social interactions. These “weak ties” have been hard hit during the pandemic and both positively impact organizational performance and employee engagement and happiness. We’ve had small scale experiments with the Slack Donut app that have been popular, but it’s an area that needs more attention. And knowing that teams benefit from coming together at least once a year, we’ll need to think about how to plan – and budget – for that.
- Performance evaluation and compensation. Evaluating performance fairly is challenging at the best of times and has been all the more so over the past year. In particular, we need to be cognizant of the uneven burden placed on working mothers and of making inaccurate assumptions about people’s ability to “show up”. (This article has some helpful tips.) Related to this – and an issue I don’t think we’ve yet satisfactorily resolved at PLOS – is compensation. Organizations such as Facebook are choosing to pay workers differently depending on the cost of living for the communities where employees choose to live. But this is a complicated question and the answer likely depend on your overall compensation strategy and goals for moving to a distributed team. (I found much here to inform my own thinking about compensation.)
Ultimately, our workplaces are complex ecosystems and it’s not always going to be easy or obvious to figure out how to recreate what makes them work in virtual spaces. I think that the fact that our leadership team is fully distributed will help – most of us are not located in either San Francisco or Cambridge. If we were, I think we’d be at greater risk of our center of gravity being pulled there and a sense that office-based employees were somehow advantaged by more face time. I’m also very mindful of the fairly extensive research documenting the ways in which hybrid and distributed working can deepen disparities, especially for those without the support, space and connectivity to work from home effectively. But the experience of this past year has given all of us new insights into what we most value when it comes to our work and our time. We have an opportunity to reimagine the ways in which we work that can be more agile, cost-effective and productive and that also create a better experience for staff across our organizations.
(If you’d like to take a deeper dive, I can recommend this recent New Yorker piece and this Harvard Business Review collection, in addition to the referenced links through this piece. There are also fully distributed organizations who generously share their practices and learning, such as Trello and Gitlab.)