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There is a great debate raging around the world on the future of office spaces. Many are trying to return to the way things were, while others claim the modern office is dead. Huge companies are following Twitter’s example in saying that their workforce can work from home forever. But does this mean we’ll be leaving the office for good?
From a more flexible working style to the reduction in global pollution, there are undoubtedly many benefits gained from remote working. It will likely remain a permanent way of working for many. A survey conducted by ICM and YouGov found that 45% of the UK workforce predict a permanent change to their company’s approach to flexible working after lockdown.
But there is still huge value to be had from a dedicated office space: the company culture, accessible communication and personal support, just to name a few. The question is, how do we create an office that is safe and fit for the changed global context? Here we’ll look at why the office is here to stay and how it will need to adapt.
The fact of the matter is that when restrictions lift, there will still be demand for office spaces. Pre-lockdown, the SME and freelance economy was booming. These sectors relied on offices, often co-working spaces for the infrastructure and stability they provided on a day to day basis. Previous studies have shown that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote workers and facing a global recession, companies need to be running as efficiently as possible.
Much has been written about what these future offices will look like. Less densely packed with stricter safety measures in place, successful companies will be making plans now on how to protect their employees. A solution to provide these shared locations in a safe way is to create high-end, bookable office spaces for company meetings and “away days”. From catering, technology infrastructure and productivity tools, the services these locations provide would be unparalleled to anything a fully remote team could access.
The home isn’t an office (and shouldn’t be)
Google has given each of their employees an allowance of $1,000 USD to expense necessary equipment and office furniture, but is this enough to create a truly effective office space at home? The playing field isn’t even here, as one worker’s home is not like another’s. While some may already be equipped with dedicated home offices equipped with expensive technology from printers to coffee machines, others will be struggling to find the space to place a desk so they don’t have to spend 12 hours a day at the kitchen table. The sudden shift to remote working has even presented a hierarchical challenge. Junior staff are more likely to be in house shares with minimal space, whereas leadership will have the funds and space to make homeworking comfortable. Many are greatly missing the physical infrastructure, space and separation of work and home that offices provide.
One of the main factors that has seen workers struggle at home is the reduced bandwidth of the average household compared to most offices. Many of us have struggled with faulty connections over video calls or seen productivity levels drop when laptops struggle to connect to the work server. We’ll likely see a huge demand for neighbourhood co-working sites, locations in residential areas to conduct meetings or undertake internet intensive work a couple of times a week.
Not just a place to sit
As many of us have personally experienced over the last few months, working remotely can be extremely difficult. A survey from the IES found half of all respondents reported not being happy with their current work-life balance after facing a set of new challenges connected with working from home. Managers have found it much harder to check in with the wellbeing of their workers when isolated from them. No matter the number of video calls and emails you send, nothing can replace an honest face to face chat. The office acts as a safe, shared space, where issues can be amicably discussed in the hallway or more privately in a check-in.
These issues are enhanced for those joining teams. During lockdown, many have started new jobs and the usual office tours and group meetings have been replaced by video calls, some of which can be awkward when you haven’t met the people in the squares. They’re missing out on the casual conversations you get from office life and the opportunities to really get to know their colleagues. It’s extremely difficult to pick up on subtle body language cues and the intention behind a person’s email when you haven’t met. Offices will provide an opportunity for workers to get to know one another, helping boost team morale and productivity.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly changed the way we view many aspects of our daily lives, and a commute to an inner-city crowded office certainly seems both unattractive and unfeasible for quite some time. To overcome this, the solution may be de-centralised offices, with many more regional hubs. Barclays has been looking at the prospect of local branches becoming satellite offices to help reduce the number of workers crowding into city centres. These would act as culture centres, providing an opportunity for workers to meet, discuss their workload and generally check in with each other without coming into contact with hundreds of others.
In a previous article, I discussed how the demand for secondary retail has massively shrunk, and one of the replacements to take over these locations could be co-working spaces. There are already talks of House of Fraser located in Westfield, one of London’s top shopping centres, being converted into a co-working office space. These conveniently located offices would work as secondary locations for workers working mostly from home. A mixed model approach could see employees at home for two days a week, at a regional hub for another two and then in a city location for one.
There is no doubt that remote working is here to stay, but companies should prioritise a blended approach, with the option to come into shared spaces to foster the sense of teamwork and provide networking opportunities. The designs of these spaces will greatly change to best cater for their new adapted purpose. By demonstrating the measures taken to protect employees and providing a flexible work process, companies will see workers understanding the benefits of these spaces and much more willing to return. The office isn’t dead, it’s evolving into hubs for open communication and creativity.