Most of us that use a computer for work have experienced working from home for a while now.
And as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted in the UK, more of us now have the chance to go back into the office.
But do we really want to?
Managers, freelancers, employees and business owners all have some big decisions to make over the coming months. And office space providers have a lot of convincing to do if they want to hit full capacity again.
So with many of us being cautious about safety, as well as surprised at how enjoyable home working can be, what’s it going to take to convince us to go back to the office?
Keeping things safe
Let’s start with the big one. As we move into the second half of 2020, safety in terms of avoiding COVID-19 infection is the number 1 priority for most people. Lots of office providers are trying to address this, with social distancing guidelines, enhanced sanitation measures, and even sanitised pods to hide away in.
Personally, as a pretty cautious guy, I’ll be staying home for quite some time yet. The virus seems to thrive in places where air circulation is closed off; so unless there’s a demonstrably effective air conditioning system (that doesn’t cause everyone to freeze) I think I’m out.
The only thing that’ll get me back to the office (unfortunately, for the owners of my former co-working space) is either the nationwide virus threat to reduce so much it’s not a risk any more, or a safe and widespread vaccine.
I know there’s plenty of others who won’t feel the same, and that’s fine. But rather them than me. Will I feel this way forever? Almost certainly not. But I think that feeling safe enough to return is quite a way off yet.
Schedules that balance work and life
Now that we’re more conscious of our work-life balance, this one’s going to be high on the priority list.
As a worker, I might like to attend the office 2 or 3 days per week. I could schedule my meetings for those days. It’d provide a nice work-life balance.
Jamie Waters writes on the office of the future in Monocle magazine (June 2020):
“In this new world order, employees will be able to toggle between working from the office and remotely based on where they can best get their day’s work done. Flexibility is king: research shows that having ‘variability’ in our work environment helps to make our jobs more stimulating and increases productivity.”
So you could work on a company schedule, where half the team might stay home on Thursdays, or you could work on your own - you might only come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example.
The 35-hour work week that strictly adheres to 9-5 conventions just won’t be attractive to many any more, and moving away from it hopefully means less crowded transport, fewer cars packed on to rush hour roads, and less busy offices.
No more worshipping the open office
The default layout for any new office, yet the bane of anyone trying to concentrate - open offices continue to divide opinion. Will we be so eager to return to them?
Dan Lyons eloquently outlines his disdain for the open office in his book Lab Rats:
“Countless studies show that these nightmarish hellholes called ‘open offices’ destroy productivity and make people miserable. Yet companies keep inflicting them on us, coyly pretending that the goal is to ‘foster collaboration’, when really it is to squeeze pennies out of overhead by packing more people into fewer square feet of floor space.
The open plan arrangement isn’t just unpleasant. Researchers say open offices can make people stressed out and physically sick. Open offices might even be harming our brains. A Cornell study found workers in noisy, open offices had elevated levels of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, after only three hours of exposure.”
He tells how one Apple executive reportedly erupted in a foul-mouthed rant when shown the floor plans of the company’s new $5b ring-shaped ‘campus’ building in California. It's not surprising. You can’t engineer complex technology alongside the distractions of other peoples’ loud conversations.
Lyons looks to the future (written pre-COVID, of course), and sees a few options for office life to come.
“… the answer isn’t just to stick everyone back into private offices and cubicles. The office of the future… will incorporate lots of different environments— open spaces for socialising and working in teams, but also individual retreats offering peace and quiet."
Moving on from the open office would be an expensive operation. You can’t just move a few bits of furniture around. You’re talking a full-on office remodelling to include walls, doors and corridors, unless you want to end up with stacks of cubicles - which would be a bit 1990s really, wouldn’t it?
So it’s pretty likely they’re here to stay for a while. Whether they’ll be at full capacity like before, though, remains to be seen.
Optimised, but optional
For many companies the office will end up being optional.
Even though it’s been a time of huge global change, I think people generally tend towards what they know. Loads of people prefer working in offices and won’t give it up anytime soon. People thrive on interpersonal interaction. Videoconferencing isn’t a great replacement for the subtleties of human communication. Building a company culture is harder when you’re all talking through screens.
Virus-beating tech interventions could be part of the return to office work - infrared temperature checks, contactless lifts, and clever scheduling apps can be part of the workplace of the future. But by the time they’re implemented, will the fear of the virus already be long gone?
Long-term thinking is still a critical part of making offices more attractive. One good point Jamie Waters makes is that it’s still early days:
“The lockdown hasn’t provided an accurate reflection of what remote working would look like if implemented thoughtfully.”
What might things look like when we don’t have to suddenly pivot as part of a global emergency? Strategic plans for a comfortable and flexible office life will have to include guidelines on scheduling, availability hours, expected email response times, and feedback mechanisms for employees. Many decisions will come down to whatever improves the bottom line the most, which might take a while to find out.
Either way, the office of the future will be very much open for business - in different ways than before.