Anna Sundukova, 12/2020
In this article we share some of the key learnings from creating a remote-first workplace strategy in our recent collaboration with AI startup Rasa. With the sudden shift to remote work the office is facing its biggest identity crisis ever. Many businesses ask themselves which benefit the physical space can have for them in this new era. For Rasa, a globally distributed team with a home base in Berlin, the office plays an important role for the “softer side” of the organization, for individuals, teams, and the community. But it can also play a key part to manage the shift to a sustainable remote-first work culture.
Remote work “2020-style”: the mass experiment that became a reality literally overnight, has pushed us all to reconsider how and where work could or should be done. The remote work revolution, underway for many years, has been accelerated to the speed of light in a matter of weeks, and as with all things that grow too fast, has left little opportunity to adapt organically. Office workers learn to decouple the identity of their working self from being present at the office. Businesses are rethinking their workplaces, causing the office itself to face its biggest identity crisis ever. At Rlevance, we got a chance to wrap our heads around how the new version of a workplace might look like by working on a remote-first workplace strategy and implementation concept for Berlin-based AI startup Rasa.
Rasa asked us to rethink their office space in Berlin deciding to go remote-first during 2020. At the time, Rasa was looking to grow to nearly 100 employees by the end of 2020, while a significant part of the team was already distributed across the globe. Is it possible to maintain an office space while pushing for a remote-first work culture? How do we deal with the office in Berlin when the entire company is going remote? How to make a remote-first company work for everyone? What to do with the legacy of a Berlin-oriented culture? Ultimately, can we have the best of both worlds – office and remote? We set out to answer those questions and to define how the new Rasa employee experience should look like, using the best of human-centred design practices. Rlevance created a workplace strategy that gives the space a clear role and offers concrete spatial solutions to empower a truly remote-first team. In this article, we are sharing two key learnings that we think are universally helpful to anyone trying to untangle the “remote-office” paradox.
If work can be done from home, or anywhere, what will be the new role of the office? Our client Rasa was facing just about the most extreme version of that dilemma – going for a company-wide fully remote culture AND keeping their office. How could the existing space be a supporting element on the way to a remote-first work style – both for those working from Berlin and those distributed globally? That was the overarching design challenge we were resolving.
First and foremost, we observed that the meaning and “value proposition” of the office has shifted for this team in a matter of months. Our research with the teams has shown that the importance of focused work, possibly the core function upon which Rasa’s previous office was set up, had faded. Productivity, focused work, information exchange and daily routine collaboration do not seem to be a challenge for the team in an out-of-office context. After all, as a digital startup, Rasa is equipped with the training, tools and knowledge to transition to remote without much struggle. So what is lacking? Human connection and work-life balance. 59% said it is the informal socialising that makes them want to come to the office. In addition, a staggering 84% of the team admitted that one of their main motivations to come to the office is for a “change of scenery”.
If we extrapolate, what can this fascinating statistic tell us about the common beliefs that surround the concept of an office? The very thing most offices are built for – execution of work, focus and productivity – can potentially be done outside of the office. What we have uncovered is that the obstacle to a satisfying work experience is not the inability to perform core job-related tasks but rather the lack of “soft” supporting factors like social and informal work-related connection and the emotional and psychological value of separating work and life. Could this be a natural bias caused by Covid-induced isolation? Maybe. However, taking a closer look at this finding together with the team at Rasa we have concluded that this is rather an indication of a significant need shift than a momentary whim.
The new role we have developed for Rasa reflects this core shift: the office as a community hub. We proposed to leave the “desk-centric” layout of the space behind. Moving from previous focus on desk management and concern with seating arrangement to a focus on community management and social exchange, collaboration and fruitful encounters. A community hub shifts the office role towards gathering, exchange and collaboration, whether work-related or social, while partially outsourcing focused work to home or elsewhere. Of course, the community hub will allow for the whole variety of modes necessary for a satisfying work experience, but will now include much more than just formal meetings and silent work. Which brings us to the second learning.
When we first walked into the Rasa space we saw a cozy and down-to-earth looking office with rows of large office desks, a few meeting rooms and phone booths. Nothing that would strike the eye as unusual. Because, frankly, this is exactly what most offices look like. However, this setup assumes that whether you’re reading, talking, coding, designing or answering emails, there is no difference in your needs or states. Because all you have is one place at one desk. At Rasa we saw a prime example of this phenomenon.
Observations, in-depth interview and survey results have shown that throughout most of the day team members were pretty much stuck at their desks or in tiny phone booths, with the exception of occasional trips to a meeting room or the kitchen. That way, neither focused work, collaborative remote work, nor social encounters could happen in a satisfying way without disturbing each other because the setup of the space was so uniform – it was mainly about the desk. But work is not a uniform activity. And for all teams and companies this holds true. However, the exact makeup and proportion of these various work modes can and will differ from company to company. To make a team truly successful, the workplace needs to be built on the understanding of this core principle: one size does not fit all and work is done in many ways. This goes against the common approach of throwing standard and trendy spatial situations on companies (think: ball pit and ping pong table) assuming that some “play-time” will increase productivity. For some it might, but for others it will be an expensive distraction.
We have researched and developed solutions for different work styles that together form a “vocabulary of work modes”, rooted strongly in both psychology and design. They span across all of today’s knowledge work modes, and the solutions are easy to implement for most businesses. For the new Rasa remote-first workplace strategy, we have carefully observed the needs of the various teams and identified the most fitting work modes from our vocabulary, which were then grouped together into three key spatial zones: The Quiet Zone, Collaboration Zone and Public Zone. Instead of trying to read, think, code, call, talk and socialize at their desks, the new space encourages employees to choose a precise area of the space that they need in the moment.
With this set up, eliminating the personal “fixed” desk was a no-brainer. First, in order to offer employees the right space for each work mode. And second, for the reasons we have covered in Learning #1 – claiming ownership of desks would literally be the opposite of a community hub approach. With 55% of employees ready to say goodbye to their personal desk and hardly any physical items to stow away, the omens are favorable for the adoption of this approach.
We’ve seen many office fads come and go over the past couple of years: the open office, outsourced co-working spaces, etc. Today, “remote-first” has developed into just the kind of buzzword that is thrown around without thinking it through to the end. Our biggest learning over the past years has been that the best offices are not an accumulation of “hot shit”, but spaces that mirror and enhance the life within them. This is why we believe the best office (re)design starts with understanding the people who using the space. And so, is it possible to maintain an office space while pushing for a remote-first work culture? We believe it is not only possible, but also truly beneficial. If designed in a human-centered way, the office can provide the necessary support to help the team transition to a remote-first culture and offer the stage for those parts of the work experience that are hard to replicate at home: a feeling of community and connection.