Hi there! I’m Nirvanna, an Enterprise Account Executive here at Robin. You can’t see me, but I’m smiling in disbelief because the workplace has changed so much over the past 18 months.
As you can imagine, my conversations with customers have too.
At one point, customers came to us, crying, “Help! Our office is too small! Everyone is complaining that there’s not enough space!” Today, conversations start more like, “Hey… Our office is mostly empty aside from the people who never left… Most of us are working fine at home. Can you please help us figure out how we use our space next?”
At Robin, we’re passionate about understanding what makes workplaces tick and anticipating what companies need in order to best support their people in a physical work environment. Below is my recap on how I’ve seen the workplace conversation change since I joined Robin and my own predictions for where I think we’re headed next.
From open office woes to the new flexible workplace
When I started at Robin in 2018, one thing was clear about the workplace industry:
Everyone hated the open office.
We knew that the workplace transformed from cubicle farms to wide open, public rows. And not without reason: Cubicles supported networking for desktop computers. The open office allowed for better space efficiency, but sacrificed employee experience. Determined to be the cure to the open office, we adapted our technology to support activity-based work (ABW).
ABW is a workplace strategy where your office has a variety of spaces to accommodate the different types of work that take place there — like focus work, collaboration, learning, socialization, and rejuvenation. With a variety of spaces, the workplace could be a haven for all. Especially if the proper tools (like Robin) helped employees best use their space.
Robin was right in many of our predictions about the workplace. But I don’t think anyone ever predicted we’d have to figure out how to help people work through a pandemic.
When COVID-19 first surged, all we could do was react and watch companies scramble to distribute laptops and launch VPNs (virtual private networks). Many companies were remote-ready — don’t get me wrong — but even then, rapid change brought unforeseen challenges.
Working from home was foreign territory. Many people didn’t have an ergonomic home office setup. Many had partners and children at home with them. With so much uncertainty, this was a difficult transition for everyone.
"Before COVID-19, work always happened at work."
Before COVID-19, work always happened at work. When you did work from home, it was irregular and felt almost like a day off. WFH as the default gave us the opportunity to strengthen our remote work muscles. We found a way to do our jobs through all the chaos. Not to mention a few new perks too. No commute, a fully-stocked kitchen, and your own bathroom! And let’s not forget the layoffs and furloughs that happened at the start of COVID. Many people were grateful to have their job and showed that gratitude with good work.
It wasn't long before workplace teams began to think about how to bring everyone back. Moving out of the office was a huge headache, so how could they get ahead of the possible future pain with a thoughtful re-entry plan?
That’s when we decided to step up our game. Getting out of the office was one thing, but getting back in would be a completely different animal. We happen to know a lot about the workplace and wanted to lend a hand to our customers wherever we could.
Mid-April, we hosted a webinar about using our new desk management tool for planning out socially-distanced seats. Demand was off the charts. Safe distance in the office is a tough nut to crack and we cracked it.
Nirvanna walking through Robin's distance planning tool for socially-distanced desks back in April
However, like with the open office, people were thinking of WFH as a detour rather than a way forward. They thought that after this was over, everything would boomerang to the old normal. Got back in the office? Problem solved. But as time goes on, it’s clear things won’t be that simple.
Time is linear (as far as I can tell), and with it, comes the inevitable change of the future. More and more companies are realizing, “Hey, maybe we don’t need to resign that lease?” or “Hm, maybe we could use one building on that campus instead of two?” or “Huh, we used to be running out of space, but now there’s too much.” At Robin, for example, we may be able to occupy our head quarters in Boston’s Seaport for a while longer than we thought.
With more and more forward thinking among our customers, the conversation is not just about getting people back into the office safely anymore. It’s quickly become about entirely rethinking how and where we get work done.
And the surveys are clear: Even when things go back to normal, people want to split their time between their home and the office. In fact, 90% of people want to work from the office at least one day a week. As my colleague, Brendan, likes to say: “The work from home genie is out of the bottle.”
Fast forward to July, we reopened the Robin office to our “pioneer group” of Robinauts (those who voiced interest in coming back in first). The first few times I went into the office, it felt kind of absurd packing up a backpack and leaving my house to work. What was my why?
Our office is much different than it used to be: There are way fewer people around. The seats are all spread out and facing the same direction to prevent us from sneezing on each other. We have arrows taped to the ground to show us where to walk. And you have to wear a mask if you’re doing anything besides eating at your desk. It’s not the same office we left.
But I’ve realized WFO (“Work From Office”) has its merits too... I like watching Tik Tok on my commute. And I like having my iced coffee from my favorite little cafe across the street. And the industrial air conditioning over summer was absolutely fantastic.
It’s way better to work on Robin stuff near Robin people.
Most of all, it’s way better to work on Robin stuff near Robin people. It feels good to be in the office giving a demo alongside an Engineer tinkering away on the product. I missed being in the same room with people who care so much about what we’re working on. I missed working together.
There are days that I prefer to come into the office and days when I prefer to work from home. It depends on what I have on my plate for that day. Sometimes I need that togetherness and the place of work, and sometimes I want to work alone to focus.
Throughout this entire journey — reacting to help people get plugged in at home, helping teams map out a safely-distant office, talking through long-term flexible and hybrid work strategies — one common thread ran through. We really need to focus on people more. People deserve choices.
Today, the workplace can be any number of places. Your kitchen table, your dining room table, your bed, your home office, and yes, even your actual office. It’s about letting people choose which of these environments makes the most sense for their workday (and empowering them with the right tools to make that happen).
At Robin, we call this idea the “opt-in office”.
Sure, we celebrated our six months at home in September. We hosted different virtual events throughout the week — game night, work out classes, cook-a-longs, and our legendary “Untalented show” — but even then some Robinauts called in from the office. Because that’s where they wanted to be.
We’re proud to give our people a choice. We can make your office an option for your people too (learn how here).
Given recent events, I hesitate to try and predict the future, but there are three things I know for sure:
1. The old way is out.
The changes we are going through are far from over and whatever the "new normal" will be is beyond the horizon. Still, there's no way things are going back to how they used to be.
2. Work from home is here to stay.
Again this all comes back to employee choice. This means allowing people to have the flexibility to work at home when they want to.
3. As work changes, the office will change.
Every workplace will still be unique. The way we design spaces will continue to adapt to each organization’s unique needs.
In the meantime, here at Robin, we'll keep listening to your needs to make sure our tools and resources evolve along the way.
Nirvanna is an Account Executive here at Robin. She’s been practicing the art of sales in Boston since 2014. She has a degree in Sociology, Media & Communications from Tufts University where she wrote for the Tufts Career Center blog and was published in The Knot magazine. Don’t be shy, connect with Nirvanna on LinkedIn.