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The Office is a Product

July 23, 2021
office space the movie

In 2021, getting people back into the office requires some complex negotiation.

Apple is going hybrid. Someday.

Google is going remote-first. Maybe.

Facebook is going… metaverse.


With 2021 looking as every bit as low fidelity and unsure as 2020, a lot of digital companies are planning and forming committees and writing op-eds and on and on….

I thought it would be useful to take a large step back from the corporate whack-a-mole and get to the foundation of what is really happening out there, for the people who use office space.

What is an office, really?

An office is a just a product. A product, as defined by Melissa Perri in Escaping the Build Trap, is a vehicle of value. It transports value from one party the other. Both parties need to find value in this way, and the value doesn’t necessarily need to be equal in value or symmetrical in scope.

Like all products, offices are unique and have unique value propositions for their users. Many businesses treat offices like communal areas and shared spaces where employees who uses computers, dry-erase boards and code to create value for their customers can gather and attend morning scrum before putting on sound-proof headphones for the rest of the day.

Most software and computer engineers I’ve worked with do not and have not found this useful or appealing. For those types of employees, remote work is here to stay forever.

Which begs the question: what do we do with this office? What good is this space anymore? Should we get rid of it?

What unique value proposition does returning to the office offer your employees?

An Exercise in Growth

Considering that the office has a UVP, leveragable elements, and real competition (like wearing sweatpants, no commuting, and lunch-time naps), we can really look at an office as a product of the employees and business that use them. Most importantly, an office also has network effects. All of this means getting people to return to the office is a exercise in product growth

As I learned in Reforge, we can start to understand, strategize and execute on initiatives that impact adoption and retention by answering six essential questions:

  • How does your product grow?
  • What are you points of leverage?
  • Where and when does my current grow slow or stop?
  • How do we improve our constraints or horizon?
  • How do I align individuals, team and the org around these constraints?
  • What new information do I have that changes our underlying assumption?

Once we understand and can sufficiently answer these six essential questions (for any product) then we can truly understand the value that the office provides its users.

The Network Effects of IRL Offices

Right now, across the world, people are working remotely. The only way to “meet” is by scheduling time on their calendar or sending them an ad-hoc request to join a video feed of whatever room they are currently in and forcing them to turn their camera and microphone on. Then you have to force them to focus on a talking head on a screen instead of the dozens of other pressing things that are as-or-more-than important than you, a real-life, talking human.

Its not easy.

And its also leading to more 30-minute meetings that have ever been held in the history of the world, which is leading to meeting fatigue and less productive hours during the work week. From my own perspective, this doesn’t work.

There are a lot of great product teams and businesses out there trying to solve this, and I’m sure they will:

  • Spot Meetings is trying to get people to take non-video meetings (and take a walk) by giving them smarter ways to capture notes and action items.
  • Loom is trying to get people to record themselves and their screens for 5 minutes and send a link
  • Atlassian is creating more tools for Confluence and JIRA that are meant to help product teams get out of the perma-meeting era of our lives.

But all of these don’t account for one great value prop: talking to people in real life is great. Like truly great. Seeing your coworkers and friends in person is objectively 1000x better than a video call of any kind. It is what makes us human.

But the biggest problem is getting people to come back to the office is an network problem. If one-or-two people start coming back a few days a week, they’ll always say “Why come into the office when everyone is remote anyway?”

Nobody drives in New York, the traffic is too bad.

This is a problem that can overcome in two ways: a carrot or a stick.

Right now, most offices are using a stick, e.g. you must come to the office X days a week after X date. Some companies are starting with carrots, e.g. come into the office with your dogs, free-lunch, ice cream trucks, happy hours, etc.

This is because meetings that happen in person are more productive and being around people is generally a good thing for your health.

But the UVP of the office is not ice cream, or whiteboards. Its certain not more meetings.

The UVP of offices is the walk back from the kitchen or lunchroom where you see your teammate walking to a meeting and you can get an answer on something that has been bothering you that morning.

Its the 2-second interaction at the end of the day where you’re reminded that your coworker is a really good person and has your back.

Those are the kind of things that provide value and compounds the network effects. Its also the thing that Corporations cannot gamify or mandate with carrots or sticks. They just sort of happen. They take time.

So if you’re able to, give it a few more months. Let people come back on their own terms. If they like it, great. If they want to stay remote, great. As long as the bottom-line isn’t impacted, what does it matter?

Well, time is money.

North-star KPI: PIO

So lets continue with the exercise. How do you even know what you’re doing is helping if you’re not measuring it?

I introduce: People-in-office. The metric we can start to measure and run experiments on. You can introduce carrots like weekly happy hours in person, guest speakers, etc. and measure which type of carrot is most impactful for your business.

You can also implement sticks like a mandated return-to-office but guess what? People still won’t be there 5 days a week. The genie is out of the bottle. So this KPI covers that too.

Use this metric to and run experiments to get people to come back. Treat your office like a product. Grow your product like your business depends on it. For some, it actually might.

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