The office remains at the center, but its purpose must be defined together

The post-pandemic era has caused confusion among the management and employees of organizations. When the purpose of the office has changed, it is time to talk about the best possible office and when it is important to be there in person.

The post-pandemic discussion on working life and leadership has been strongly focused on adapting to the hybrid work era. Many leaders have been asking what kinds of policies organizations should introduce, is remote working good or bad, what the future of the office looks like, and so on.

While these questions are relevant, I would like to add a perspective that we at Microsoft have been particularly concerned about: the well-being and satisfaction of employees, and the responsibility of leaders to create optimal conditions for work.

Looking back at the 20th century, the office was built with a clear purpose. To communicate effectively, work together and share information, employees and leaders had to work physically close to one another. Desktop computers, files, fax machines and servers had to be placed on company premises.

Advancements in software and cloud technology, and ultimately, the pandemic, have changed these assumptions. We have seen that teams are able to perform their tasks remotely. We have seen employees clearly enjoying the many perks of the increased freedom brought by the possibility to work from home.

However, Microsoft’s Work Trend Index studies have also reported increased confusion and anxiety among employees, as well as growing mistrust between managers and team members. Younger generations in particular are less committed to their employers.

Instead of puzzling over the optimal number of days to be spent at the office and remotely, leaders should now focus on strengthening their employee experience and on creating an empowering work culture that helps everyone succeed, regardless of where the work is physically carried out. In other words: making their organization one where people want to work and stay.

The role of empathetic leadership has become increasingly important

Boundaries between the physical and the digital have blurred. With new technologies, such as metaverse-like meeting applications, they will continue to blur. Technology has already improved the participant experience in meetings where some coworkers attend remotely and some physically from the same meeting room. Most work tasks are executed in a similar manner, whether they are performed at or outside the office.

In a more and more location-independent world, the leader’s empathy skills become increasingly important. Building trust and actively having dialogue cannot be emphasized too much. Decisions that affect the daily life of every team member should be made at the team level whenever possible. I firmly believe that those who actually do the work know the best way to do it.

Therefore, managers should gather their teams together and talk. Planning one’s work week becomes easier when the team has discussed the optimal locations for performing different tasks. Are there some tasks that employees are expected to do at the office? How do we build and maintain bonds as a team? Are there some people who should build connections with other teams, and how do we ensure that there is space and opportunities for that?

Although many of the tasks we do at work could be performed almost anywhere, the office will remain a crucial part of work also in the future. Teams should discuss and define together when members are expected to come to the office and what the best practices are for ensuring and maintaining team bonds. Typically, routine tasks can be done anywhere, but ideation, development, and creating something new happens more easily when you are physically together. And we should not forget that some colleagues are so thirsty for social encounters that they want to come to the office almost every day.

Through dialogue, leaders fulfil their role in creating clarity and safety in the workplace. If employees know how they can achieve the best results, we should empower them in decision-making. Managers can expect increasing work satisfaction and commitment when they focus on clearly communicating to each employee what is expected from them, and then letting the employee figure out the details.

Looking back at the history of the office, managers and teams can facilitate future-proof working habits by reinventing the purpose of the office. It is clear that the reasons for coming to the office have changed, but they have not disappeared.

Kalle Saarikannas

Kalle Saarikannas is Business Group Lead (GTM Manager) Modern Workplace at Microsoft Finland. Saarikannas was a speaker at Technopolis Workplace Talks.