The original purpose of the office was simple – as a knowledge worker, it was the place you had to attend in order to do your job.
For (almost) every employee not out ‘in the field’ selling, building, fixing, cleaning, or transporting something, all the resources you needed to do your job were only available in your employer’s physical place of work.
Although this twentieth-century reality of the office has not been the case for much of the last decade, force of habit has ensured most employers have been uninterested in considering anything other than the status quo.
Thanks to the events of 2020 it has been proven that most recruiters can do their job from home.
This week Australia welcomes the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, and the accompanying (tempting) thought that we might be ‘getting back to normal’ sometime this year.
What might this ‘normal’ be?
Is it the normal of pre-pandemic life or is it a different sort of normal; one coloured by what agency owners, leaders, and recruiters have been able to accomplish during the largely work-from-home (remote work) environment of working life across 2020?
Inherent with this question is defining the role the office has played in the culture, productivity, and reputation of a company, and the role it should play in the company’s future.
Here’s a small sample of what will be lost without an office:
- Building relationships through informal exchanges: Whether it’s having coffee, lunch, or drinks with colleagues or just having brief chat in the office as you pass each other, each and every time you communicate with a colleague builds important social capital. Informal exchanges are far less likely when you are not consistently in close physical proximity to your colleagues. A closely-connected team will always outperform a less-connected team.
- Learning by osmosis (and just knowing what’s going on with your colleagues’ work): No matter the quality and quantity of formal learning and development you have in your agency, undertaking your job in close proximity to other skilled recruiters will accelerate your skills significantly. When I started in temp accounting recruitment, back in 1991, I was incredibly fortunate to sit next to Michelle Adonis, and across from Bronwyn Allen, almost certainly two of the best temp recruiters in the country at that time. What I learned in my first year would have taken me many years through any other means. Working from home means zero learning by osmosis. Your CRM or ATS will provide you with objective data about your colleagues’ candidates and clients but it won’t provide you with the context beneath the facts that being adjacent to the colour and movement of the assignment’s progress does provide.
- Informal observation: `An effective leader is attuned to how switched on (or off) each of her direct reports appears to be. In the office, a leader does this by noticing body language and voice cues, across an extended period of time. This opportunity to observe an employee informally enables the leader to intervene early before KPIs (or other formal measures) suggest there might be a problem that needs addressing. The same opportunity does not exist with remote employees as (almost all) observations will be a formal setting such as a meeting or video interview.
- Sense of purpose and belonging (culture): Being surrounded by like-minded colleagues who were in the trenches beside me, whether winning, losing, laughing, crying, swearing, frustrated, or exhilarated, was an immensely fulfilling and bonding experience (read Chapter 6 of The Savage Truth for the specifics). Swapping stories of your roller coaster (remote) day or week will always be a pale imitation of witnessing the technicolour moment of it happening around you (and reliving it over Friday night drinks). Having your colleagues see your character (and you, theirs), warts and all, whether it’s a champagne or razorblades moment (and everything in between) is an important part of appreciating your colleagues’ different strengths and weaknesses.
Agency owners publicly declaring their position on the future of the office were a rarity until last week when u&u managing director, Craig Sneesby, emphatically hammered his stake into the ground in an interview with industry news service, ShortList ($) declaring, “….U&U’s 2021 growth plan involves investing more in office space, with NSW expecting to more than double its physical footprint this year, as the company continues to develop its other facilities.” This news was not necessarily surprising as he also revealed that u&u finished 2020 with a higher headcount than it started the year.
Sneesby’s went on to tell ShortList that, “having a highly appealing and state-of-the-art” facilities is a strong attraction tool for bringing people into the business.”
I agree and would add that it’s potentially an important status and retention tool, as well.
An office must be a place that recruiters want to go to, not a place they are compelled to attend.
Recruiters not only want to communicate face-to-face with their colleagues but they want a physical environment they are proud to invite clients, candidates, and friends to.
The office-as-a-destination may soon take on an ’arms race’ with some agencies, owned by creative risk-takers possessing deep pockets, taking the opportunity to make a big statement with a dazzling office fit-out.
There’s a risk (it’s very difficult to say how large) that minimising office spend and focusing on leveraging remote workers will put a handbrake on growth as recruiters decide they really like a hybrid model and the office location and fit-out proves to be a key differentiator for the best recruiters seeking a new opportunity.
Will we see, in the not-too-distant future, record office fit-out expenditure invested across employees who spend fewer average hours in the office each week, compared to any of their employer’s historical employee cohorts?
That’s a scenario that would require a healthy increase in recruiter productivity to fund it, bucking the trend of progressively worse returns to recruitment agency shareholders for every extra dollar of revenue that is invoiced.
The issue of remote work and the future of the office is a massive one for our industry.
It’s a future without a playbook or template and given the stakes involved it’s a succession of choices that all owners and leaders will have to make this year, and be judged by in the years to come.
I suspect it could be a turning point for many agencies in our industry.