Why Return to the Office?
It’s a common refrain heard in virtual meetings worldwide: “I can’t wait to see you back in the office.”
This inevitably leads to difficult questions that most business leaders can’t yet answer. When will that happen? Or more pointedly, why should we even go back to the office? Organizations already learned that far more of their work can be accomplished remotely than could have been predicted.
The question of “when” is often out of our hands. So much of that answer is wrapped up in local and national restrictions, infection rates, and R numbers. But the question of “why” can lead to answers that will reshape the workplace for decades.
Workers are not anxious to get back to the office just for free energy drinks or breakfast bars. They want the in-person interactions with their colleagues and camaraderie that develops after months or years of working closely. Or an environment built through serendipitous encounters, such as the kinds that helped make Bell Laboratories one of history’s great centers of innovation. Social capital is an increasingly important factor in the workplace, even if it is hard to quantify and frequently overlooked.
These networks of shared values are old ideas that began to wane, and only recently rekindled the attention of executives. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found a reference to social capital as far back as 1916 in a book about how neighbors worked together to manage schools.
The impact of social capital is sufficiently strong that the influential book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community credited this concept with part of Silicon Valley’s success. The late Steve Jobs, one of Apple’s founders, also advocated for in-person serendipity as a path to creativity. Social capital creates a sense of belonging and trust that leads to greater productivity, loyalty, and innovation.
Infosys has valued that social capital and nourished it, from the ways we organized our campuses and offices to how we developed our company networks. Now executives need to decide how to renew that social capital in a workplace we didn’t envision — at least not this soon. Further, we have to consider all the new Infosys employees who are hired, onboarded, and work remotely without ever seeing a new colleague in person (more than 3,000 in 2020 so far).
The basic components of the new work-from-home landscape are already established. Ninety-nine percent of the Infosys global workforce of 240,000 is working from home effectively, thanks in part to the social capital that already exists. That move wasn’t the easiest part of the transition, but it was the easiest part to quantify.
It is now up to us to build a new structure that can nurture social capital remotely. Virtual happy hours or online tea times are a fine start. Funny backgrounds in the right video meeting can boost morale. But those are low-hanging fruit when it comes to building ties that develop relationships and strengthen a workplace.
The immediate solution — keeping the enterprise running seamlessly — is already in place, at least for the businesses that have weathered COVID-19 so far. Now our focus must be on the medium- and long-term adjustments. How much longer the pandemic will continue is a mystery. Although promising vaccines are likely to arrive in record time, the efficacy and effort needed to immunize a planet are less certain. Social distancing and other precautions are likely to stay with us for some time, perhaps much longer than we wish.
Some workers will return to their offices, though not all of them and not all at once. Infosys is helping clients safely return to the office through effective processes and technologies. But these hybrid workplaces won’t look or operate in the same ways as before. How can you connect while keeping your distance? How can we create these valuable, collaborative moments that occur in between bursts of hard work?
No one has all the answers. Organizations like ours must research, experiment, and prioritize the building of social capital. Even if initial efforts miss the mark, new approaches need to be queued up. We are increasingly skilled at the new ways of working. Now we must do the same with the new ways of not working — finding those in-between moments in the day that are valuable yet difficult to measure. This is a step toward maintaining the resilient workforce we need in the medium term.
In future years, when the pandemic has passed, the exact shape of our workplace will differ considerably but our lessons learned will cover all possibilities. Some employees will always be in the office. Others will always work from home. However, the large middle will likely embrace the hybrid approach to maximize its benefits: building social capital in the office and producing with greater efficiency at home.