Return To Office: ‘Water Cooler Moments’

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James

James

2 years after COVID-19 became part of our lexicon – there’re good signs that we’ve moved back (almost) to life as we used to know it. Life B.C. (Before COVID).

COVID-19 & Work from Home

The COVID-19 pandemic changed our workplaces. Lockdowns (Referred to as Circuit Breakers or Movement Control Orders in some countries) meant Work-From-Home (”WFH”) became a default for many of us who used to work in offices. Even post-lockdowns, COVID-19 restrictions kept some of us working from home.

WFH gave us flexibility and bought us time. Among other things:

  • We no longer needed to brave the morning and evening commute; we could in fact put that time saved into a more efficient workday, and see our loved ones who lived in our homes a lot more (while they also busied with their lives).
  • We no longer needed to “beat the office lunch crowd”. In fact, we could prepare our own (healthier?) meals. Many of us started exercising more too.
  • We could still collaborate with our teammates, almost as efficiently as before – with Zooms, Slacks, Teams, Meets – whatever platform our organisations used. Digital adoption became mainstream, and scanning QR codes became 2nd nature. ArcLab ourselves had the opportunity to serve a lot more organisations to onboard, train & understand their workforces.

Yet there were also drawbacks:

 

  • Zoom fatigue replaced commute fatigue. While a decent substitute for in-person meetings, it was not perfect. There was only so much one could bear staring into a screen.
  • The boundaries between Work and Personal Life are blurred. Some of us ended up working a lot more because there was no longer that office commute to put a natural ‘break’ to the workday. Travelling time saved ended up being ploughed into more back-to-back meetings (not all of which were productive or necessary).
  • Too much overlapping time at home could create tension. Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when schools reopened and welcomed our children back to the classroom. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Return to Office

With COVID restrictions gradually lifted in the past year and a half, employers in Singapore and all over the world had to decide whether / when / how much to have teams return to the office

While there’s never a perfect system, we think the office does have its place. Most of us are in fact glad to spend some time in the office with our co-workers. We might not miss the commute, but we miss the discussions and brainstorming that we could do with our teammates in the office. No amount of Zooms or Slacks can replace this.

Each of our organisations will have to make our own decisions.

At ArcLab, here’s how we think about WFH vs Return To Office (”RTO”):

  1. We’re an output-driven company – so we don’t police time spent at the desk. If we can finish the work we’d set out to do for the day in 6 hours instead of 8, all power to us. Take that last 2 hours to work on a personal project, or prepare dinner for the family.
  2. We believe in personal integrity & pride – As a software firm, our team members can work from anywhere. So for personal tasks and independent work, we don’t need our team to Return to Office. WFH (or Work from Anywhere) is perfectly fine. This includes every member of our team taking turns to man our User Support Chat (that blue bubble at the bottom of your screen) – so everyone talks to the customer. Obviously, we don’t need to RTO for that. And Point (1) above continues to apply.
  3. We believe in “water-cooler moments”. In spite of Points 1 & 2, much magic can happen when people get together. As we execute our development roadmap to keep building out ArcLab, there are times that we need to brainstorm and think together as a team. Slack message threads can get inexorably long & inefficient, and Zoom Whiteboards just can’t bring out that ‘spark’ moment that can take place when everyone gathers around a physical whiteboard with post-its.

Eventually, after some iteration – we decided as a team to have 20-30% of the time each month be spent in the office, together.

So we now have a hybrid work model – we meet once a week in the office, spending the day working on common problems together, or just working in the same place. In that way, we create opportunities for banter, “water-cooler” conversations (OK, so we don’t actually have a water-cooler), and out of these – sometimes magic happens. We can’t mandate that these situations, but we can create the environment for it.

We also have a monthly Lunch-and-Learn – where different team members take turns to share a topic of their choosing – be it their current project, something they learnt, their hobby, anything at all. The firm buys lunch (always from one of our F&B customers 😊), and we get to spend time together as a team and learn from one another.

So far, we find this flexible work arrangement a good balance. If the situation evolves, we’d adapt as a firm. That’s what we’d all do.

Now, regardless of whether you’re an employer or an employee, it’s not us vs them.

We all need one another.

The market may be in the employee’s favour today, but I’ve worked long enough to know that the economy moves in cycles. There’ll come a day when there are more workers than jobs available. So always conduct ourselves reasonably.

To Conclude RTO vs WFH - Remembering our Deskless Workforce

Now even as we contemplate RTO for our businesses, let’s remember the workers around us where WFH was NEVER an option – the baristas who make your coffee, the servers who serve your meals, the construction workers who build your homes. And many more.

For these – our Deskless Workers – their jobs are time-specific and location-specific. All these discussions of RTO or WFH are irrelevant to them.

For our Deskless Workforce – work continues, often ignored by the majority of society. Yet, we’d come to realise the crucial role that they play in our economies. On average, they earn lower salaries, because they are often lower-educated, and are less highly skilled (at least in the skills that command high pay). Businesses find it hard to pay them more because their productivity is so low.

This is a vicious cycle that we as an economy and society must break. This is the problem that ArcLab is solving.

Watch:

At ArcLab – we’re building the World’s Simplest Training System – empowering businesses to easily create, distribute and track training for deskless workers.

Training that can be consumed by workers in the Flow of Work. 

Anytime, anywhere, in any language.

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