As more companies embrace working remotely, the role of offices is evolving. Here's why we believe providing a physical space still has great value.
Hi, I’m, Naokey, and it’s my job to think about the future of the company and everything else here at Xtra, Inc., which is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.
Remote Work at Xtra
We adopted remote work at our company, mainly for our engineers at first, but have since found that it has also been of benefit to our staff who have children. We hear a lot these days about how to balance childcare and work, so I'm happy that people have been able to utilize the system in this way fully.
You can work comfortably, without having to take a rush-hour train; which is especially uncomfortable in midsummer when the temperature is regularly exceeding 30 degrees celsius (86 Fahrenheit) — like it has as I write! The two hours you would have spent commuting can be used to do something productive.
The Challenges of Remote Work
If you have only considered the benefits of remote work, then you are likely to wonder why more companies haven’t adopted it and if we even need offices anymore at all. Actually, there are various challenges faced by both remote workers and those who manage them. Let’s take a look at some examples.
For remote workers:
Those who aren’t self-motivated may find their productivity goes down.
It can be challenging to communicate effectively.
One can get stressed by feeling obligated to respond to all messages instantly to avoid the risk of looking like you’re checked-out and not working.
It’s harder to tell if a worker is really engaged.
One tends to show favoritism towards workers who commute to the office.
If the company's culture is based on a pessimistic view of human nature, remote work is unlikely to succeed. For example, if a supervisor assumes that, unless proven otherwise, remote workers are usually slacking, they will be prone to being over vigilance and micromanagement. They might request frequent video chats and be overly strict on the remote workers that are charged with managing.
For large enterprises:
Here in Japan, we often hear that “Large Japanese enterprises are undergoing a remote work revolution!” However, the reality is different.
Only those who have applied for and obtained permission in advance are permitted to work remotely.
The workers must commit in advance to having a place for their work where they will not be disturbed. This, of course, rules out places like cafes and coworking spaces.
If the office calls them, and they don’t answer, they must call back within a specified number of minutes.
Thus, for example, if an employee’s child suddenly comes down with a fever, the employee can’t simply switch to working remotely to take care of them. The system lacks such flexibility.
Steps Towards Remote Work Success
So, what approach should companies take towards implementing a remote work system? There is no perfect solution yet. However, based on our experience, we can say that the following steps can help (in no particular order):
Creating a culture based on assuming the best intentions and giving the benefit of the doubt
Having compensation be completely performance-based
Making sure to hire people who can work independently (this is harder for larger organizations)
Transparency and information sharing (using collaboration tools such as Slack and Google Docs)
Being open to a diversity of working styles
The Future of Remote Work
If VR (Virtual Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) become more popular with the penetration of 5G, we may create an environment where communication can be achieved in a way that allows people to work side-by-side even if they are physically located far apart.
If we look at Japan from a macro scale, as the nation’s native workforce continues to shrink, there will be the need to use foreign labor. However, having people relocate to Japan will not always be practical for a variety of reasons.
Of course, there are some types of jobs that cannot be performed unless the worker is physically present, such as nursing and medical care. However, I think that, moving forward, providers of online services should work towards creating a culture and an environment in which people in different locations can enthusiastically work together towards common goals.
Why Offices Still Matter
So far, I’ve been talking about working remotely, so you may ask if an office is even necessary anymore. I would say that it is. However, the traditional role of an office as a place where actual tasks are implemented is in decline.
Moving forward, for companies that increasingly embrace remote work, the role of the office is shifting to being a place to foster culture and facilitate social interactions that spark innovation. I’ll elaborate on this below.
1. As a Place to Build The Company Culture
If all interactions are online, it can take time for new hires to feel out the company culture, working style, and their new colleague’s characters and approaches.
I think technology will resolve these issues eventually. However, for now, it’s easier to bring new people up to speed by having them work together in the same space for a while. Thus, for sharing the company's objectives and approaches, the office plays an important role.
During the early phases of a startup, I think a team needs to have a place where they can meet, get on the same page, discuss the creation of their product, and share their enthusiasm. Therefore, an office serves a crucial role in facilitating this period when the company’s culture is formed.
2. Facilitating Social Interactions That Spark Innovation
While I don’t know if there is a linear correlation between the amount of informal social interactions and innovation, I do know that it’s often during these moments that new ideas pop up. When colleagues greet each other with a, “Hey, long time no see!” and the ensuing chitchat can result in discoveries that lead to unexpected breakthroughs in the business.
For this reason, a few years ago, back when our company was known as anydooR, we invested a bit of money in creating an office environment that would feel like somewhere that was easy for people to drop in on and talk to each other. We wanted it to feel like the kind of trendy cafe you might find on the west coast of the United States.
After talking with various office interior specialists, we felt that TrailHeads best understood what we were trying to achieve, so we went with them. When we first moved in, it felt a bit strange because we had been used to a traditional office environment that was designed purely for work. However, we got used to it, and I now feel that we have been successful in creating an environment and culture which encourages communication.
A company’s meeting venue doesn’t necessarily have to be a traditional office space. While budget constraints are tight, you could use cafes. What's important is to have a convenient place to meet your colleagues that is conducive to social interactions. In any case, we can expect that things will continue to evolve. Meanwhile, we will keep striving to provide a great place to work through trial and error.
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