Remote or the office: Striking the right balance

A recent FM magazine podcast guest offers guidance on redesigning work, and the workplace, after the upheavals of the pandemic.

Among the countless changes wrought by the pandemic over the last two years, how and where we work might be the most significant. Almost instantly, as offices, schools, and businesses closed, organisations had to rethink and redesign their processes and workplaces as the pandemic spread.

Now, organisations will have to again rethink their work policies and physical infrastructure as they begin transitioning to a different reality. They will need to consider what's best for employees, productivity, and profitability while maintaining flexibility. There's no one single answer, especially as the COVID-19 virus continues to circulate and geopolitical upheaval roils the global economy.

Lynda Gratton is an author, consultant, and professor, and a world-renowned expert on organisational behaviour. She recently spoke to the FM podcast about her new book, Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone.

These excerpts* of her conversation with FM's Neil Amato offer practical tips and considerations for reimagining and redesigning the new workplace.

*This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Neil Amato: Why, in your mind, does work need to be redesigned?

Lynda Gratton: I've thought that work needs to be redesigned for a long time. Let me give you three reasons for that. Number 1, we're living longer. You and I are going to live into our 80s, 90s, maybe 100, and if we live longer, we work longer, up into our 70s.

Secondly, extraordinary technological changes, which means that we have to upskill, reskill right the way through our career. Number 3, we're actually changing our family structures. I was brought up in a family where dad worked and mum stayed at home, but now most women work. Most families have two workers.

So, each of those — we're living longer, we're having more technological changes in our life, we have different family structures — means that work always should have changed.

It should have become more flexible, more adaptive, more about learning, and really more able to allow people to be what we are, which is humans who love joy and collaboration and so on. I've been saying this for some years, but of course, the pandemic has been an enormous, what I've called, "unfreeze" in terms of how we work.

Amato: Now, as it relates to the pandemic, do you think there are some company leaders out there saying, "But we don't really need to have a hybrid environment. Everything's going to go back to normal, whatever that is."

Gratton: Well, good luck to them is all that I would say. But having said that, the way that I'm thinking about it is to say, when cars started to be produced by Henry Ford, you could only buy one car. It was called the T Ford, and you could only buy it in one colour. It was black. That's where we were with work. If you want to work, this is how you have to do it. What we're seeing, since the pandemic, is an enormous variety of how companies are offering work to their employees.

For example, the investment company that says, you can work anywhere you want for three months a year. The law company that says you can take a sabbatical every three years. The few companies across Europe who are actually experimenting right now with four-day working weeks.

What we're seeing is an outbreak of variety. So if you're a leader and saying, "I think we're all going to go back to how we were," what you're going to find is some of your competitors are going to be pioneers. They're going to do things differently, and your most talented people are going to be saying, "Why aren't we doing this?"

Amato: Can you explain the concept of freeze and unfreeze as it relates to the design of work and specifically how that change during the pandemic was so different from how it normally plays out in business?

Gratton: We've basically said organisations are generally in a state of freeze. That, by the way, isn't a bad thing. It's not that we're all sitting there actually physically cold. What it means is that most of our structures and practices and processes are pretty stable. They're frozen.

Then something happens to unfreeze them. By the way, if you look at why that is, you'll find a whole set of reasons. For example, there's a merger and acquisition, or a competitor brings out a new product, or the CEO resigns, or your shareholders have a revolution.

All of those mean that an organisation goes into an unfreeze state. It starts to question why are we doing this, how are we doing this, and so on. Then over time, it refreezes. What's been really interesting about the pandemic is that every company unfroze on the 24th of March in 2020.

I've been keeping a journal ever since. That was the day when the unfreeze started, and I'm beginning to see the refreeze. Some executives are saying, "I want you all back in the office. It's going to be just the same."

Others are saying you can work from home. Some are saying hybrid. There's so much variety. For me, as an organisational theorist, it couldn't be more fascinating.

Amato: What to you are the key pillars or steps for making an effective hybrid environment for work?

Gratton: There are some key steps, but actually, I wouldn't jump straight into saying it's got to be hybrid. I would actually start with the job itself. In my book, Redesigning Work, I think that's been one of the most important points I've made, which is to say, you have to ask yourself, how do I become the most productive I can be?

If you take a look at the job you do or I do, or the people around us do, they tend to have three different types of tasks involved. One is to do with focus. I'm sitting on my own. I'm really focusing. I'm doing analytical work. I'm writing something. I'm reading.

The second is coordination. I'm coordinating with other people. I'm doing a project. I'm talking to people about how this job is going. The third is cooperation. I'm cooperating with other people. I'm trying to be innovative. Each of those requires different working situations.

For example, if you want to be focused, I speak as a psychologist here, Neil, the most important thing is that you are undisturbed for at least two hours. It doesn't really matter if you're undisturbed at work or undisturbed at home, you just have to be undisturbed. That's the most important thing. Lots of people find that it's better to be undisturbed at home because they don't have people walking in and out of their office.

The second is coordination. I need to talk to you about setting up this podcast. We didn't need to meet to do that. We could do it on email, which is asynchronous. You send me an email, I look at it because we're on different time zones, and I send it back to you. That's asynchronous. We could've done it virtually.

But then there's cooperation where you actually really need to be in the moment. This is synchronised, and you can do it in the office or you can do it at home. My guess is that quite a lot of people say, the cooperative tasks, I want to do in the office.

I was talking to somebody very senior at one of the investment banks just two days ago in New York, and she said to me, "You know, Lynda, I have just spent one and a half hours commuting into New York. I'm going to spend one and a half hours commuting back, and all I have done today is to sit on Zoom meetings. I could have done that at home."

Of course she could. So what's going to happen now, and this is why it's all so fascinating, is people are going to say, why am I coming into the office? There are good reasons for coming into the office, but sitting on a Zoom meeting isn't one of them.

Amato: There are good reasons for coming into the office, and that actually leads in nicely to my next question. What is the new way that people are forming networks, making connections, if people are rarely in the same physical space?

Gratton: That for me is one of the most fascinating questions, and that's why in the book I actually spent quite a bit of time talking about networks and network structures. But here's the thing, humans are collaborative, cooperative people. We work through working with others.

What we loved about the office is that we could bump into people. We could have lunch. I'm in London right now, and I cannot tell you how excited everybody is to go out for lunch together, to meet people, to say hi to people, to do, "Oh my goodness, I haven't seen you for years."

I think what's going to happen over the next few months, is we're going to really ask ourselves, can we be creative even when we're not in the office? But is there something marvellous about coming together face to face? There really is. But to do that, we have to be much more intentional.

I think, for me, one of the most important words that I've used in Redesigning Work is this concept of intentionality. If you're going to go into the office and sit on your computer all day, which by the way is what we did before the pandemic, that's what we did when we went to the office: We sat, we put our headphones on because everything was so annoyingly loud, and we worked on our computer.

If we're going to do that, then really we'd be better at home, and then we'd be making our networks with our colleagues, in our neighbourhood. This is one of the things I've heard from quite a lot of people, saying, ''Do you know, suddenly, I'm at home, and I have now met my neighbours, and I've spent more time with my kids, and I've met my friends.''

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato at