What will be the Future of the Office?

What will be the Future of the Office?

Steve Polo

Mercy, mercy, me; things ain’t what they used to be….no, no.
- Marvin Gaye

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Jim and Mary are having a discussion about working in the office:
Jim:  
Hey Mary, I haven’t seen you in a while, what’s up – not trying to avoid me are you? Ha!
Mary:
 Oh hey Jim, yeah I’m not avoiding you.  They moved me to the graveyard shift.
Jim:
Wow! Too bad, it must be a real adjustment – how’s it going?
Mary:  
No, it’s actually really great. I had no idea!  I get up mid-morning – every other day - spend the day helping Brian teach the kids, do activities, and workout. By the time I leave for work, the kids are bathed, fed, read-to and I’m free to really work! What an awesome thing for me!  If I’d thought about this earlier things would have been a lot easier - and with no extra day care – cheaper – a three-fer!
Jim:  
Sounds like the perfect thing for you.  Not sure it would work for me, but, hey I’m the early shift so I get home at 3:30 pick up my kids, fix dinner, and hang out!  All good!

What’s going on here?

A number of years ago I wrote an article called The End of the Office.  In that article I imagined a future state, or states, where the use of the conventional office space for businesses would wane, transform, and in some cases disappear.  The premise of that article was based on the ethos of the time: the rise of the gig economy, partly as a response to the 2009 recession, and to the entrepreneurial spirit informing many young people’s decision-making.  

Now it’s a different story……

Remote work was such a hot-button prior to the pandemic, and mostly it didn’t work. One of the main reasons was because of the antiquated view of management that suggested if you couldn’t see the person, they weren’t doing their job. That idea is wrong on so many levels, but mainly, if you don’t trust people to do their jobs, you’ve hired the wrong people (but that’s another article).

It is an often-held belief that physical proximity is necessary to build and maintain a corporate culture and there have been studies to support this idea – building the case against remote work.

But like with any idea – much of the research on remote work has been anecdotal and once ‘reported’ stood for the way all companies should be run. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ or the so-called ‘best practice’ solution.

Another reason remote work didn’t work (see Making Remote Work, Work) is that there was never enough emphasis on the management structure to make it dependable.  And because no one really knew how to do it, fear of it failing overcame the impulse to really figure it out - despite it being one of the top requirements of younger generations. If the management of remote work had become more systematic, the opportunity to use remote work to retain employees, use less real estate or more importantly, as a growth strategy (by not taking more office space), was generally missed.

The easiest way to respond employees’ request to work remotely was to give them “flex time’. This became the substitute structure for a true remote work policy.

Well, guess what?  Companies (and employees!) were forced by the pandemic to work remotely almost exclusively.  Very few companies had policies, procedures, collaboration tools and structures to make the transition – and yet here we are all working remotely…..so now that we’ve done this for months, how will we take the best of this experience and transform how we work in the future?

One scenario will be that workers will be so sick of being cooped up at home (and trying to maintain normal family interaction and be productive) that everyone will flock back to offices.

Another scenario could be that no one wants to go back to the office – they have spent months perfecting this new arrangement, so why change?

Scenario three to three thousand will be some combination of both. How will your company decide which one is best for them?  (be on the lookout for our blog post on ‘one size does not fit all.’)

What if people are too scared (with reason or not) to go back to an office?  Do those people never get jobs?  Will employers finally acknowledge that people were able to perform remotely?

What if new governmental or health policies require we maintain social distancing and other procedures to prevent future outbreaks? (Think about going to the airport pre-9/11, and all the new policies that sprang up to prevent that event from happening again: Security lines, identity checks, taking off shoes, jackets and belts, personal screening, X-ray all bags and luggage, random explosive material residue testing, random bag search – it’s a big list. And to top it off: The creation of a whole new government agency – Homeland Security and its ‘travelling companion’ – TSA.  

Then: two classes of passengers – TSA pre- and the others). How do we avoid that with this crisis?

A plus – more space (not increasingly less) for people to do their work.

The office of the future might have to be bigger than imagined because we’d have to accommodate a much larger footprint for each employee. Great for employees but more expensive for companies to provide.

Other procedures might have to be employed – temperature screening, documentation of being non-contagious, quarantine section (kind of like the smoking section in the 70's).  On the positive side, new types of jobs will be created – Chief Medical Officer, Chief Wellness Officer, Quarantine official, etc.  

There will likely be a resurgence of the private office – as much for health reasons as privacy (and in the current space design world, that pendulum had already begun to swing away from open offices).

So back to Jim and Mary – maybe companies will adopt shift work as the model.  Shift work would allow people to manage their schedules, stay safer, have adequate work space, and connect with colleagues in person.  Employers could stay in their offices and not have to get more space. They’ll have to manage a little differently, but could keep a lot of valuable people.  The real estate world might actually benefit from shift work – with little adjustment to the leasing/financing model currently in place. Getting to work would be easier with staggered work schedules.  Even cities could benefit by having fewer cars on the road at the same time and infrastructure could get improved more efficiently.

Next week we’ll model another scenario, so stay tuned.

Stay safe!
Steve
April 2020

Latest Articles