Is this the end of the modern office?

Exploring the cost of running a modern office in the age of coronavirus and what this means for how we live and work.

A captain obvious statement here, but the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has blown all of our lifestyles apart. We are only now starting to scratch the surface of how we must adapt to this new way of living and working.

A growing thread of conversation, not only in my homeland of the UK but the world over, is how people are going to return to an office environment. Followed closely by the followup question, should they?

In many businesses haste to get people back into the office to wrestle some form of control and try to return to days gone by. Many have all but seemed to forget what the true cost of clinging onto an everyday office and filling it with people will cost in the post-pandemic era.

I mean, who has really sat back and thought, how much will it cost to sustain the office life if this pandemic goes on for another 18 months?

Of course, “if” is the key word here. No one knows how long this will go on for but this doesn’t mean we can’t try to be future-fit and engage in a bit of discovery to design a better way to operate.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed the endless list of enhancements that workplaces and many other facilities are having to make to create safe environments for all humans.

From masks to sanitiser gel, wider corridors to touch free doors, and air purifying air conditioning units. A lot has changed and of course, more will come. These are just a small amount of the enhancements offices will need. I haven’t even mentioned thermal scanning and regulated desk booking systems

The point is, some of us may want to get back to an office but can the office be there for us anymore?

Many businesses have shut down and/or lost money during these past 6 months in the COVID-19 wave. Now, to get their people back to the place they want them, they have to find even more money to sustain the environment they work in.

So, we might just find that the office of the future is only available to the elite. Those that have the cash flow to provide an environment that has all the enhancements to keep it’s people safe.

If the era of the modern office is coming to an end, what could the future look like?

Well. if we look at what the last 6 months has shown us, I think we can go 2 ways:

  1. Fully remote workforce with no corporate office space. I think this one is unlikely to happen 100% but many workplaces are thriving in this already and even before COVID.
  1. Hybrid office. Essentially a blend of working remotely and in an office but the office here would be more like a coworking space for a meeting of minds and creative sessions. Think less desks and more space with a far more human touch

Let’s unpack how these two solutions could work in a hypothetical future of work.

The fully remote workforce

In this environment, there is no office and all of the workforce will work remotely, mostly from home.

This might terrify some but it’s already a common practice, especially with big tech organisations. Automattic (the creators of wordpress) are a great example of this. They have been a pure remote workforce for many years now.

The last 6 months has seen a high number of us partake in an impromptu remote first working experience. There have been teething problems yes, but for the most part, we are seeing more and more workplaces with the infrastructure to support a remote workforce.

Of course, this was mostly forced due to the overnight COVID lockdowns. Yet, nonetheless, the infrastructure now exists in many workplaces and employees have been reporting positive outcomes across the board.

No doubt, you will have seen the same articles as I which spotlight what seems like an endless list of positives to the remote working lifestyle. Less commuting, relaxed environments, more time with family, improved physical and mental wellbeing (in some cases) and a general balance of better wellness.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. Some of us love the remote life, while some of us don’t. For every person who reports improved mental and physical wellbeing, there are plenty who are suffering from the changing times. We can never capture the perfect blend for everyone but the remote working experiment has given lots of businesses much to reflect on.

Away from the employee wellbeing and productivity side, you’ve also got the cost of property portfolios. It’s safe to say many leaders are looking at their property portfolios and asking why they still need so much office space if people seem to be just as productive or even more without a traditional office? It’s a good question.

Although a fully remote workplace is a preferred choice of many (including me). I don’t see it being fully realised right now. I believe this pandemic has struck fear into all of us and made us question our safety, mortality etc. Yet, I don’t think we are going to see a mass adoption of full remote workforces with no central office. Not for the more traditional large corporates anyway.

There’s some good and bad in this just like our second option. Less commuting yes but less of the human touch too. More time at home but that means spending more time in just one place which doesn’t work for everyone.

I’ve no doubt we’ll see more SME’s test this model and I’m curious to see how this develops and what we can learn from one another in scaling this approach in the next few years.

The Hybrid office

Ok, so this is the one I believe will work for most people and businesses too.

You could look at it as sort of the perfect compromise and balance for the future of work.

We’ve all had a taste of the remote working (mainly from home life). I think I would be speaking for most when I say we’d like to keep a healthy balance of this in our life as the benefits are just too good not to be recognised.

But, on the other hand. Some of us still want that central place, that meeting of minds where creativity can flow in a social setting. Where we can have more of that human touch in our work.

This is where the hybrid office/workplace will come in.

In simple terms, this will involve part of your time working at home and the rest in an office type environment. Now this might not be the standard corporate head office you would have expected before 2020. I think we’ll see more work spaces turn into the WeWork type environments of flexible co-working spaces.

I believe we’ll see offices with more space, less desks and in-formal areas for people to meet and work at socially accepted distances of course. Again, you’ll find a number of workplaces who have been experimenting with this type of environment with strong success pre-pandemic too. 

We can expect to see this scale over the next few years and not just in the technology sector, where it is already a commonplace approach.

What next?

I don’t think any of us have the answer to this question.

We are all in discovery mode right now. Exploring these strange times, learning, sharing with others and doing the best we can, with what we have in the moment that we find ourselves.

The above are just some of my thoughts right now as I go through my own journey of discovery with all that life is currently providing. You have no doubt read and will continue to read lots of opinion pieces on this topic before the year is out.

Even as I finished writing this piece, I found myself reviewing research from McKinsey and Co showing that “80% of people they recently surveyed report that they enjoy working from home. Forty-one percent say that they are more productive than they had been before and 28% that they are as productive. 

Many employees liberated from long commutes and travel have found more productive ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and decided that they prefer to work from home rather than the office. 

Many organisations think they can access new pools of talent with fewer locational constraints, adopt innovative processes to boost productivity, create an even stronger culture, and significantly reduce real-estate costs.”

They go on to recommend that workplaces can reimagine how work is done and the future role of the office with these steps:

1. Reconstruct how work is done

2. Decide ‘people to work’ or ‘work to people’

3. Redesign the workplace to support organizational priorities

4. Resize the footprint creatively

We can all read the available research and will have different opinions as time moves on. But, what we must recognise, is that the world has changed, the office will change and we are all discovering how to design a future of work that supports everyone.

So, is this the end of the modern office? Potentially, only if we want it to be.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the future of the modern office and learn from your approach. You can share these with me in the comments section.

Interesting resources:

The BBC data journalism team share through a highly interactive article, a hypothetical future in 2025. One, where the pandemic has completely changed the way we live and work.

Re-imagining the post pandemic workforce with McKinsey and Co.

How Automattic is sustaining the perception of presence in its distributed team.

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