In the wake of the pandemic, remote working has become the talk of the hour. Both businesses and employees want to figure out the best practices and tools to effectively manage the transition from the office to the home. Fast-forward a couple of months and following the progressive easing of lockdown restrictions in a number of countries, priorities have changed. Now some businesses are looking for safe ways to go back to the office and resume their normal activities to some extent. The rush to reopen offices means that offices are here to stay at least for the short term. But what will the workplace look like in the months to come? And more importantly, will we even need offices in the long term?
A time of change
The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has had a deep impact on industries around the globe and on the way we go about our daily lives. Strict social distancing measures taken by a host of countries meant businesses needed to adapt their HR policies and introduce remote working to ensure business continuity. According to an MIT report, nearly half of Americans are working from home. The majority of those telecommuters (34% of all respondents) have switched from commuting to working remotely, while the remainder (14.6% of all respondents) already worked from home. These figures far exceed the 37% estimate of jobs that can be performed from home in the US. Comparing the MIT report findings with studies conducted prior to the pandemic shows the significant impact of the novel coronavirus on work culture. For instance, only 4% and 7% of Americans, in the public and private sectors respectively, stated they benefit from flexible working arrangements according to the 2019 national compensation survey.
Many may see this huge discrepancy as the start of a remote work revolution following the positive feedback of remote employees. In a way it is true; many studies have shown that employees are willing to continue to work remotely at least some of the time once restrictions are lifted. Additionally, initiatives from companies like Twitter, who lately stated that it will allow its employees to work remotely even beyond the pandemic, may give us a hint as to what the future of work might look like. Office life will continue. The question is how?
A new look and feel to the office
With a vaccine still in development, social distancing is still our best bet to combat COVID-19. The changes that can be brought to the office upon the return of employees needs to respect this golden rule. Obviously, there is a reluctance by businesses to spend big on office renovations since the end of the pandemic may be sooner than we expect, which doesn’t justify the cost in the long term. But what has been done so far is a combination of small short term fixes to reassure employees and guarantee their safety. For example, Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate company, proposed the idea of the 6 feet office. The concept is based on a set of rules and layout changes that put hygiene and safety at the heart of the office. For example, offices in the coming months will contain more signs to communicate hygiene best practices and guide employees through the office. Additionally, the open space design may be partially ditched in favour of a more spacious layout and private workstations with panels and sneeze guards to keep the recommended 6-foot distance. Undoubtedly, technology will also play an important role in the new office. The internet of things (IoT) gives employees the option to control gadgets and perform various activities through their mobile devices or simple voice commands, which minimises their contact with surfaces. The short term nature of some of these solutions might indicate that they won’t be here past the pandemic. However, some others will. Hygiene and especially high tech solutions such as the IoT and artificial intelligence will be an integral part of the office of tomorrow. But will these changes coupled with the growing popularity of remote working mark the end of the office as we know it?
The office might not be dead, but it will certainly change for good
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about the evolution of office design. I tried to examine the history of offices, how they became an integral part of our lives and what the future holds. The main point of the article was that technology, coupled with cultural and social changes, often leads to innovative office designs and will definitely lead us to more remote working at some point in the future. Well, at the time of writing, I never thought that the future I was referring to was this close. As mentioned earlier, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote working and moved it from being perceived as a privilege to a necessity. This has had an impact on demand for office space. On the one hand, demand in general could diminish since more employees might prefer to work remotely and businesses might seize the opportunity to cut costs. On the other hand, demand for spacious offices could increase to give employees more space since social distancing might become common practice even after the pandemic is over (better safe than sorry).
The novel coronavirus will also influence the future of co-working. In the short term, co-working spaces are facing cancellations from start-ups and freelancers. Experts believe that the sector might temporarily suffer and its future is directly tied to the capacity of countries to contain COVID-19. In the long term, however, co-working might look a bit different (as is the case with offices). Co-working spaces might constitute a viable solution for small businesses looking for cost-effective flexible spaces. In order for that to happen, co-working spaces need to radically change their DNA and their core offerings. Communal areas, phone booths and hot desks will need to be redesigned as they are often associated with cross-contamination and could present a threat to the health and safety of individuals.
Monitoring current office trends might help us predict the future of the office. The question on everybody’s lips at the moment is “will the novel coronavirus mean the end of the office as we know it?”. The answer is probably yes. We will witness some significant changes in the workplace, we might work remotely more often, but the office won’t go away completely any time soon.