Why 'office hours' could help ease the work from home stress

If it’s done right with the right tools, 'office hours' could be a game changer while working from home.

video conferencing / remote work / online meeting
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For several months now, the pandemic has created the biggest proof of concept project for remote work that any of us has ever seen. Although some companies are beginning to reopen offices, in whole or in part, many are maintaining work from home policies through the end of the year. Some, like Google, are extending the provisions for another complete year until mid-2021. And it seems that every week, more companies of wide-ranging sizes and in just as wide a range of industries, are deciding or offering to make the arrangement permanent.

It’s somewhat ironic to see some of the biggest names in tech, companies that have spent years and incredible investments in real estate and relocating workers, leading the charge for keeping people out of the office. In Silicon Valley, there’s always been a drive to do the opposite and offering lavish perks that both entice prospective employees to a company and encourage them to spend as much time as possible on campus once they sign on.

Part of the notion of keeping everyone on campus comes from the theory that thrusting workers from disparate pockets of a company together will create synergy that leads to new and innovative ideas and to unique problem-solving opportunities. These opportunities, whether organic or forced because of how different departments and divisions were situated or encouraged by private commuting busses, all came down to a single principle that COVID has thrown out the window - random interactions between staff occur onsite that won’t occur remotely and they may be among the more valuable interactions of employees

The idea is not entirely unfounded. Even not thinking so grandly, there is a camaraderie to working alongside your teammates, to having the ready access for a second opinion or impromptu brainstorming, to being able to poke your head into someone’s office or workspace with a quick question or spur of the moment idea. There are benefits to productivity, team function, and overall satisfaction that occur naturally and may seem forced when there’s a screen or device connecting those involved.

Does this mean remote work can’t produce similar effects? No, not at all but it does mean that there needs to be more effort and planning in order to make them happen and that’s something that falls, appropriately or not, on team leads.

Think outside the box (literally)

As human beings, we are capable of picking up when situations feel contrived, awkward, and unnatural. That sixth sense, however, is one of the reasons that we’re challenged by online meetings, why remote interactions aren’t second nature to us, and it’s part of the reason that we experience things like Zoom fatigue. We are trying to interact in ways that feel forced and our inclination is to be less confident, less vocal, and less interactive while trying to keep up the notion that nothing is really that different.


Office hours

Rather than force a dynamic that mimics an office, we might be better suited to examine other types of human interactions we’ve had that feel authentic in a remote context.

One of those interaction models that most of us remember from college or university is that of office hours. A staple from trade schools to the ivy league, office hours are pretty simple - they’re a time where faculty members are in their offices and accessible to students that are having trouble with class, need a bit or guidance, or looking for coaching or mentorship. They’re a drop-in model for individuals and small groups.

The basic context is simple; a manager or lead creates a meeting in Zoom (or another platform of choice) and makes it known that they are available during a specific set of hours. Ideally these will be hours somewhat free of distraction. People join like any meeting and then open discussion.

One thing that’s important to note is this time does not replace individual meetings or private discussions or specific types of meetings like evaluations or all hands meetings. Because of the openness of this approach, some conversations may need to be revisited in a private meeting.

These hours also don’t mean sitting and twiddling your thumbs if you’re the manager. Simply work on tasks that can be interrupted when someone joins.

Keep it balanced

There’s something about using conference style solutions like video chat at work that can make them seem formal. The whole purpose here is to be approachable, relaxed and social. With people popping out in and out, it should feel like being in the office with your door open.

A certain level of socializing is important and it’s up to the lead to set that kind of tone - dressing a bit more casually, changing out the background, even adding quirky things to the home office can be extremely helpful and show off some personality.

Obviously this is intended to be free space but you can also get a conversational ball rolling by setting a theme for the day or a question for participants to discuss.

The most important thing is to be approachable but balanced, with concern for employees' questions or concerns.

Your personal Genius Bar

Although this approach is predominantly a project for leaders, it can be adapted by others to relax conversation and drive personal engagement. For IT, the approach could take a page from Apple’s retail playbook and offer a virtual Genius Bar.

This can be a time for IT to become less esoteric for the rest of a company, an environment where genial questions can be asked about specific workplace, and even non-workplace, issues. IT staff can talk about or show off new technologies and how they could be part of someone’s workflows that may not have occurred to non-technical employees.

One thing to make clear, however, is that this isn’t the help desk. Folks can come to learn, share opportunities, ask general questions, and get advice but specific problems should be referred to the appropriate support options where they can be more fully investigated (and documented).

Technically speaking

From a technical perspective, setting up these interactions is fairly straight forward. It’s what we’ve been doing for all types of meetings for months now. That said, it’s worth reviewing the features or limitations of the meeting solutions in your environment. This is particularly true if these sessions become both widespread and widely attended.

It’s important that they provide as frictionless an experience as possible. It’s also possible to use features or integrations with other products to enhance some of these interactions or make the conversation flow a bit more easily. Again, know the capabilities of what you have to work with.

It’s okay to flub or fail

This is all about being human and sharing human interaction. You’re not shooting for perfection. In some ways you’re shooting for the opposite.

That means that the managers and the folks dropping in should feel comfortable speaking freely and sometimes keeping quiet to let the discussion ramble among other participants. Keep in mind that there are no deliverables or big announcements at play here. It’s just a relatively casual chat.

That said, this may not be a mode of discussion that fits every manager or division of a company. That’s okay. If someone feels that the impromptu nature of these office hours is too uncomfortable for them, they should still be encouraged to try or to find ways to adapt the idea to work in a way that’s better for that individual or that part of the organization. But if it’s been tried and doesn’t work, then move on. The goal is to destress not add more stress.

Also don’t assume that this will get off to a perfect start. In a more formal organization, it may take time for people to let their hair down or to be comfortable speaking up. It may also take a few sessions before people decide to try it. Again, that’s okay. We’re all trying to process this unusual time we’re living in our own ways.

Technology is a tool but not always a perfect one

This is but one way of trying to inject normalcy into a situation that is far from normal. As IT leaders, we intuitively know that technology can help us through this. It already has in some very big ways. But we may not always know exactly how it can help.

This is one example and one that builds on other existing solutions. It’s a step in a positive direction. It’s something to consider and try (and give it some time). We have a long road going forward. Anything that makes this road trip easier is well worth a try.