2020 saw huge changes in the way that we work. The COVID-19 novel coronavirus forced home working for millions of people, and left office blocks empty for weeks or months at a time. As we enter 2021, will that change? And will we ever go back to our previous work patterns?
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d have to answer that with a “yes” to the question of change and a “no” to the return to 2019 working patterns.
Unfortunately for commercial landlords (and so for large chunks of our pension funds), the genie is out of the bottle. Remote and flexible working is now normal. Physical distancing requirements mean that offices can’t operate at their previous capacity. We simply cannot go back to a world whether offices squeeze people into banks of hot desks based on a 6 desks for every 10 people model. And as for lifts – pah! You’d better get used to climbing the stairs.
Even my rather poor fortune-telling skills come to the conclusion that we have to find a new way to use office space. And conversation with others more intellectual than I has led me to the conclusion that, rather than offices being the place for people to meet and come together to do work, they will be the places of safety for those who cannot work at home.
Offices as a meeting space
In April 2020, I’d probably have said that we still need somewhere to go and meet. Humans need contact, and some of our best work is done together. I’m itching to go back into an office, grab some pens and write on the walls, as I get increasingly excited by a concept and thrash out the details with my colleagues.
As 2020 continued, we got used to doing everything on a small screen. Whilst I seem to hear nothing but universal hatred for Microsoft Whiteboard (personally, I can’t see the problem) and tools like Miro are lauded as the latest and greatest, we are getting used to working as remote teams.
The problem comes when we have a hybrid approach with groups of people “in the room” and groups outside, as Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) has noted on multiple occasions, including the Twitter thread below:
A short thread on next stages of office work based on a conversation just now in the @WB40Podcast WhatsApp Group….— Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) December 3, 2020
It seems that a large proportion of office workers in research I've seen want to not go back to work full time in an office, but to have a hybrid approach. 1/
Offices as a place of security
Some work needs to be performed in a secure environment. Arguably that could still be remote (digitally secure) but if analogue paperwork is involved then that could be a challenge.
And not everyone has a place at home in which to work, securely. For some, a kitchen counter, shared with children for their homework, may not be the best place for work. Similarly those who live with parents or in a shared house with friends may only have a bedroom in which to work. If your work is harrowing (e.g. social work), do you really want to sleep in the same room?
We need to provide a place for people to work who don’t have the option of remote work. Offices will continue to function for that purpose and it’s entirely possible that making these spaces COVID-secure will see “hot desks” return to single-person occupation.
The rise of localism
Many people are concerned about the impact of reduced office working on local businesses. What about the cleaners (if anything, they have more to do)? What about the sandwich shops? What will this mean for the country’s future transport needs?
Whilst I have genuine sympathy for the independents that are no-doubt struggling with reduced footfall and enforced closures, or partial closures, that sympathy does not extend to the Pret a Mangers and Wetherspoons of our identikit town centres. I am concerned for the people that work in these businesses but not for the corporates that own them.
But, for every pound that’s not spent in big towns and cities, there’s another that’s spent in a local economy somewhere else. The small town where I live appears to be thriving – people who previously commuted and simply weren’t in the town during weekdays now use the Thursday market and the local shops. The local coffee shop has even opened new branches.
Similar story here. Every £ I don't spend in a city centre is being spent in my local economy. The only money I'm saving is by not travelling/incurring expenses for my employer: that benefits me because reducing costs helps to keep me in work… and reduces my carbon footprint https://t.co/mMdhqF27j5— Mark Wilson ???? (@markwilsonit) August 30, 2020
We’ve also seen banks, for example, starting to bring spaces above branches into use as local touchdown centres, rather than encouraging workers to commute to large offices in major towns and cities.
This rise of the local economy is good for society in general and good for finding a work-life balance.
Helping people to do their best work
Perhaps the real purpose of the office is to help people to do their best work. That may take a variety of forms but it’s also where technology can help. We need to provide the safe working environment. We need to provide the collaboration spaces, whilst remaining physically distanced. We need to keep people communicating.
- The way we work has changed and we cannot rely on being co-located.
- “Working out loud” has to be the operating model, supported by flexible technology and processes that encourage collaboration.
- And services provided across the Internet are now at the heart of this transformation.
Some Business Transformation may be required, to make sure the processes can keep up with new ways of working – but, whatever the future of the office is, we can be sure of continued change over the coming months and years.
Large parts of this post are based on conversations with Matt Ballantine and others on the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group. Thanks to Matt and to Chris Weston for the inspiration and for providing this community where we often work out loud, in digital safety.