Q&A: Why the Workplace Won’t Go Away

Dr. Tracy Brower, a sociologist and author, has dedicated her career to studying work, workers and the workplace. She says companies — and people — still need offices.

As the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work and a principal with the Applied Research + Consulting group at furniture giant Steelcase, Dr. Tracy Brower is on the front lines of the latest transitions gripping the workplace, studying how companies and employees around the country are responding to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A PhD sociologist, her studies often focus on work-life fulfillment and happiness.

In an interview with Catalyst, she discusses what she has learned during the pandemic, the illusion of “panic productivity” and how the workplace must evolve to deal with the new paradigm.

“It’s going to be all about how we create great experiences in the workplace and great experiences no matter where people are working,” she says.

Is this going to be a long-term shift in the workplace?

I have been saying to customers for months that this is going to be the most significant reinvention of work in our experience. We are appreciating the workplace for its absence. We are conscious at a new level about our work, about our work process, about our work colleagues, about our workplaces. We in the industry have always wanted to be on the radar screen and have the mind share of senior executives and the C-suite. This is going to be an opportunity for us to accelerate and to go in some really new places, not just respond to the pandemic.

What kinds of new places?

We can look at new ways that technology is being integrated. We can look at new levels of innovation in companies. I think we’re going to see new levels of empathy for work life. We’re going to see better leadership, because the mediocre leaders are not going to be as successful. It has to do with not just the workplace, but the work experience in a bigger way.

Early on during the pandemic, you were adamant that the office was not going to go away. Do you still feel that way?

Yes, absolutely. When you look at the data, humans are fundamentally social, and work is fundamentally social. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, it’s a matter of proportion and how much alone and how much together you want. Work becomes a fundamental way that we meet our needs for social and face-to-face time, which is good for individuals, good for teams, good for companies. And we know from research that the workplace is critical to our collaboration, to our innovation, to our effectiveness, to our performance, to our career development.

Does your research say that we’re going to see a significant downsizing of office space?

No. We actually haven’t seen that. What we’re seeing is that companies are trying to do many of the same activities in the office that they did before — focus, collaborate, learn, rejuvenate, socialize. And if you’re trying to do that with slightly less density, you’re still going to need that space. You may use it in a slightly different way, but that face-to-face place to come together is still going to be really critical.

What are companies and pundits getting wrong about what is happening to the workplace?

One of the things is the idea that people just want to work from home, period. We saw in our research that people wanted to work from home some, but not exclusively. I think the other thing we’re getting wrong is this idea of productivity. You see in the popular press that productivity is increasing by 40%or people saying, “I’ve never been so productive.” And there are a few things going on there: One, we’re learning that people are hitting a wall. They may have been more productive at the beginning, but it was panic productivity. “Oh, my gosh, the economy is on the skids. Is my job safe? I had better be visible. I had better be working hard.”

We’ve seen that productivity isn’t necessarily increasing in the same container of time. You might feel like you’re more productive, but it’s because you’re working more hours. And we need to be careful about productivity. While it’s a critical measure, there are additional metrics that matter, like engagement and retention — especially during the talent revolution that we’re in the midst of.

Has the pandemic changed your attitude about the proper balance of work and life?

It has reinforced and refreshed my perspective. The work-life literature has always been rife with questions about how to keep work at work. How do we keep work away? How do we separate work? How do we make sure that we have the space for family and friends and non-work activity? What’s really interesting is we’ve had this 180-degree turn in our discussions. It’s this wonderful reinforcement that work is part of a full life, and it is fundamental to our happiness and fulfillment.