Companies typically view workplace in terms of cost: “Cramming more people into smaller desks (or providing them with no assigned desks at all) is cheaper, so we should do more of that.” Most people, on the other hand, view where they work as a matter of convenience or comfort: “I can work just as well from home in my pajamas, and I don’t have to commute to work.” Everyone is wrong.
Where we work has a profound impact not just on our own performance, but also that of our teams and organizations. As I’ve previously written, individual performance is strongly predicted by interactions with coworkers. In addition, by far the biggest influencer of communication is physical space. By working from home, in many cases you’re reducing that positive impact on yourself and everyone you work with.
Some people like to work from home because it frees them from distractions. The workplace certainly can be distracting, but how much focus time do people really need? Across data from tens of thousands of people that we’ve collected at Humanyze, we see that over a year-long timescale most people engage in focus work no more than around 40% of time. Assuming an employee did no focus work in the office, he or she could accomplish all focus work in just two days from home per week. More realistically, assuming employees sprinkle some focus work throughout the days they work in the office, working from home one day per week should be sufficient to accomplish the bulk of focus work.
That’s an average. On a day by day basis, what will make an employee and his or her team more effective varies. Role and strategy also play a large part in determining what will work best. So let’s ask the question: where should you work today?
First we need to consider what behaviors we’re trying to optimize for. Each role has a mix of a few needs:
Cohesion: how tightly connected your team is
Exploration: how much you need to reach outside your team
Focus time: how much uninterrupted solo work you need to do, minimum of 15 intervals
Emphasizing one of these will necessarily come at the expense of the others. These behaviors are explained in depth in a number of sources (a good primer is here), but here’s a summary of what each of these behaviors are good for:
- Project delivery
- Speaking the same language, being on the same page
- Fast task iteration in teams
- New idea generation
- Checking assumptions
- Long-term career
- Sales, marketing, new business
Next let’s consider the impact of workplace on each of these metrics. In general, if you’re looking to increase cohesion or exploration, the office is the best place to do that. In an office you can sit with your team to increase cohesion or you could park yourself in a café space to bump into a more diverse group of people.
Working from home is the king of focus time. Colleagues can’t walk in and interrupt you when you’re working, but conversely you can’t naturally interact with your coworkers.
Co-working, which has been increasing in popularity, should be used during a new idea generation or research phase. Quickly, however, that information needs to be brought back into the organization, requiring increased cohesion and exploration within the organization.
There are, of course, near term exceptions to these general guidelines. If you have a sick kid or meetings with a customer offsite, that should naturally take precedence. But these are exceptions.
Thinking strategically about where we work to optimize for our own behaviors and results are critical. Flexibility is key, but we all have to realize that flexibility is about what’s best for everyone, not just ourselves.
Ben Waber is president and CEO of Humanyze.