Spending Time (Back) in Your Physical Office Will Not Solve Your Team’s Human Connection Issues — But Making Human Connection Might
“To what question is ‘office’ the answer, then?,” I asked the department head. “Social connection,” she said without skipping a beat.
We were in a department-wide workshop to talk about team agreements in the context of hybrid work options.
The answer sounded so confident that I was bowled over. Her colleagues, eager to spend their days in an office building, nodded in agreement.
But… Really? If a friend calls you to meet up, do you say, “Let’s meet up at the office”? Or if you talk to a colleague in a video call, do you say “whoah, please refrain from asking me about my morning, we’re not in the office right now”?
I think we’re all kidding ourselves if, after nearly two years of self-organising work around radically changing circumstances, we think that “office” as a physical location is a sort of magical potion for connection.
I thought connecting socially was an activity.
It takes work, it takes listening, and it takes energy. People do it in different ways. It’s not a byproduct of a physical location, it’s something people do, and they can do it at a bus stop or in a Discord channel, too.
If you want that special social connection so badly for work, what have you been doing in the past months, then, to connect?
Also, have you been to an office before? Sure, you see people all day, but that also means that YOU SEE PEOPLE ALL DAY. Distractions. Noise. Food smells. Meeting rooms unavailable. And so on.
If you’re in a management position, don’t tell me that you’re content to settle for the line-of-sight “connection” that is a byproduct of mediocre office coffee machines. I hope you’re aiming higher for yourselves and your teams.
How might you better serve your colleagues than by amplifying convenient hand-waving “being in the office will fix it” narratives?
Let’s be careful not to throw out the hard-won pandemic-era-proven normalcy of working without a centralised physical location, now that we’re momentarily able to use office spaces again.
I think it’s very logical to feel a lack of “social connection.” But I also think that attributing that feeling to not being in an office, is just as much of a cop-out as fooling yourself into thinking that, essentially, spending time in a different building will make that feeling go away.
Or perhaps even worse: what does it say about us, collectively, if we have to rely on our work for social connection and cannot establish that without the workplace?
Look. You may think this is an easily written narrative of mine, and you don’t have to agree with it. But even if you’re a hardcore 9-to-5-ing, cubicle-loving, watercooler-dominating office jockey, and you can’t wait to go back, just consider: If pandemic-era distributed work makes you realise that you’re feeling less connected, don’t stop at “being in an office will make it go away” but take a moment and ask yourself why.
Why are you feeling that way? How does connection feel? When did you last feel a human connection? What does that have to do with my work? What does that say about my work? Does connection really require an office building? Or does it require the people that used to have to spend their life there? What can I already do to reach out? How might I connect, right now?
Thomas van Zuijlen is a professional Scrum Master and an independent workshop facilitator from the Netherlands. His weekly newsletter on agility, development and facilitation is called 📬 The Backlog.