Office Interrupted – The power dynamic that space represents

The unintended consequences of fully remote work removes the messiness of real interactions but risks losing the good alongside the bad.

Office Interrupted
Jim Hayhurst having a laugh at KWENCH’s coworking offices in Victoria. He welcomes the stimulus he gets from in-person interaction. “It’s not about the space,” says Hayhurst. “It’s about the power dynamic that space represents. It’s about autonomy, choice — or the inherent lack thereof — when leaders decide to make things binary.” Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a problem in the office.

Back when I was CEO of Pretio Interactive (now Billi Labs), I was sent a kind — but very clear — Slack message by our software developers about my “management by walking around” style of leadership.

“Just a reminder to @jim of the ‘headphones rule’: Two ears covered = do not disturb. One ear = it better be important. No ears covered = we’re probably about to leave for the day. 🙂 ”

It was a reminder for me to be aware of our team members who required long periods of focus, quiet and near-isolation in a sometimes-rambunctious office (headed by a definitely rambunctious CEO).

The headphones rule was a clever (and cost-effective) way of creating protective walls in our otherwise very open office — a space that many of you will remember as the VW van, trailer and double-decker bus office on Vancouver Street.

Our building was a veritable petri dish for tech startups and community gatherings and became a local symbol of the era’s focus on creative office environments. One year it was named one of “The World’s Coolest Offices” by Inc. magazine. More recently, a stock image of it was used by Vice in an online article about the “cognitive risks of distraction.” (Ouch.)

And so, I am keenly aware that for many employees the current work-from-home reality is a great relief. After years of being told what work “looks like,” they are embracing what it “feels like.”

For others, not so much.

In this latter group’s eyes and ears, the distractions, interruptions and demands of excitable coworkers have been replaced by those of family, roommates, pets and Amazon deliveries. Cramped, non-productive physical spaces — or, even worse, unhealthy and unsafe relationships — have been magnified to the point of despair.

But where to go?

The “escape” from home to an office, however ephemeral or compromised it may have been (headphones rule or not), was unilaterally taken off the table by various stages of lockdown.

As a CEO, I may have had blind spots about how loud I was at times. But I always knew what our team really wanted was choice: the agency to construct their workday — within agreed-upon parameters — to suit individual needs, whether they be physical, behavioural, temporal or technological.

The shaded area in the Venn diagram of “what work looks like to my company” and “what work feels like to me” needed to expand.

Ironically, in the depths of the pandemic restrictions, it was now me, the one who previously had laid out the menu for corporate culture, including expectations around interacting with both people and space, who was feeling the effects of the absence of choice and control. 

Though no longer running a company, I had a myriad of companies and non-profits I continued to advise. With each Zoom invitation, my extrovert side, whose fuel was live interaction, died a little inside. 

Much as I tried to embrace the new reality, I eventually refused to do one-on-one video meetings, opting instead for old-fashioned phone calls where I could go for a walk and not worry about maintaining digital eye contact.

Zoom drained me. Yes, I was “with” people. But as I eventually told a friend, I began to resent video calls as much as I resented having to disinfect my hands every time I went out.

I lamented how video calls sterilized our conversations. This couldn’t be good for us. 

And by “us” I didn’t mean just extroverts.

In fact, if I had learned anything through the various lockdowns, it was that previously binary notions of introvert and extrovert were being challenged with every new wave of restrictions.

No, what I meant was “This isn’t good for people.” Humans. Social animals. Us.

The research on “Zoom fatigue” — both anecdotal (“everyone looks bored on Zoom”) and scientific (turns out those millisecond delays on video can inhibit our “dopaminergic pathways”) — is becoming clear.

More and more, I saw people falling into what I called “the velvet rut” — a place of comfort (sweatpants on, video off) — but a rut nonetheless. And like the over-sterilization of one’s hands, I believe there are unintended consequences to removing the messiness of real interactions in real space with real people.

We seem to be losing the good stuff, along with the bad. The in-between moments, overheard conversations, body language cues and energy imbued by “LOLs IRL”.

So I’m trying to get my hands dirty again. Thanks to increasing vaccination rates and passports, expanded guidelines on gatherings, plus our community’s general reasonableness and responsibility for each other, I am enjoying the new hybrid-work model.

My “petri dish” of choice happens to be KWENCH, Tessa McLoughlin’s co-working club on Store Street. Like Pretio’s old space on Vancouver Street, KWENCH first captures your imagination with its looks — bright, airy, cool, creative, unique — but it’s the collision of people, ideas and energy that makes it work.

If you’ll forgive the extended metaphor, I’m loving getting “infected” again. I know it makes me stronger, healthier, more resilient.

All of which leads me back to what I learned (sometimes the hard way) from each of the companies and non-profits I have cofounded or led:

It’s not about the space. It’s about the power dynamic that space represents. It’s about autonomy, choice — or the inherent lack thereof — when leaders decide to make things binary.

Open plan or private offices? Work-from-home or in-office? Asynchronous or core hours?

Over the past year, I have watched some of the most dynamic, confident leaders in our business community relinquish long-held notions about what productivity, work and engagement mean.

The best ones have come to understand that their teams can be trusted — and are best-equipped — to find their rhythm in an untethered world.

It’s not just here. This summer, the U.S. government (the nation’s largest tenant) officially embraced “work from anywhere” by signing a contract with flex-space marketplace LiquidSpace to allow employees to “to occupy only the space that is needed while improving employee productivity, reducing carbon footprints, supporting workplace diversity.”

Of all the things I heard when speaking to teams and leaders over the past 18 months about the topic, perhaps the best line came from a member at KWENCH who had struggled with both remote work and traditional offices at times.

“I DO want to go back to an office. Not to be watched … but to be seen.” ′

Jim Hayhurst is a trusted advisor to purpose-driven organizations and leaders. He is currently active in six companies and social impact projects that elevate Victoria’s reputation as a hub of innovation, collaboration and big thinking.