Among many other things, living in the age of the pandemic has proven that we can work remotely. But does this mean that traditional offices are going extinct?
It’s a thorny question for most businesses. You hire a design and construction company to craft a multi-functional workspace that’s conducive to productivity and collaboration; do remote workers get the same job done at home? Isn’t there any loss of efficiency somewhere? And if office space is still necessary, what needs to change?
Old needs go virtual
Just as our concept of employment has come a long way from the Industrial Revolution and Ford’s assembly lines, so has the workplace environment. Office spaces have evolved over the decades. Growing social awareness led to increased opposition towards smoking in the office, for instance. As computers became more compact and ubiquitous, the space-saving cubicle came into favor.
Interior design has also played a significant role in these changes. This field of study took off in the early 1900s, and designers made it part of their business to study human behavior and needs within the office space. The open-plan office concept has existed since the 1950s, being continuously revised and updated, falling in and out of favor with the times.
What all these changes have in common is that they are geared to address human needs for effective communication and collaboration towards a common goal. And the typical argument today is that such needs no longer need to be fulfilled by a physical workspace.
Not the same experience
Technology has bridged that gap; we no longer need to work together in person. We have video conferencing, productivity trackers, and cloud-based services. These enable people to get the job done with none of the drawbacks of physically reporting for work.
However, direct feedback from remote workers suggests otherwise. Many appreciated its benefits, such as the lack of a dress code, not having to commute, and being able to save money. But few wanted to continue working remotely full-time; as many as 70% said that they wish to report back to the office at least three times a week.
Then there remains the fact that many jobs can’t be considered compatible with remote work. Knowledge workers tend to be most capable of shifting all their tasks into the virtual realm. Many occupations in the service industry, retail, and healthcare can’t be separated from physical contact and activity.
During this time of change, business leaders are no doubt dealing with the burden of many crucial decisions. But any employer has to think carefully about what the future holds for their employees and their working arrangements.
While companies want to resume their operations, and workers want to start earning money again, it’s not always that simple. After a period of lockdowns, many businesses eventually reopened. But in the months since, we have seen a wave of coronavirus-related workplace lawsuits. It’s unclear how such issues will be decided on, but no employer wants to risk being held liable for such grave concerns.
Then you also have to consider issues of productivity and well-being for remote workers. Traditional measures of performance might fall short of accurate assessment when you can’t monitor everything a remote worker does behind the scenes, at least not without invading privacy. Yet many feel that being deprived of the ability to hold informal communications with colleagues in the office slows down their progress on tasks. It makes them feel inefficient, further complicating the risks of social isolation.
Making big adjustments
The office concept has to evolve once again in response to these changing times. Before the pandemic, an emerging trend was the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model, with a downtown central office for important meetings, and regional offices for most workers. That could merge with the proposed hybrid model.
You’d end up having the bulk of your workforce reporting to an office located outside of densely populated urban centers, and only doing so on-demand. Along with technological improvements such as thermal sensors, automated disinfection systems, improved ventilation, and video monitors to ensure safe distancing, this can limit both risk and liability.
Claiming that the office is dead or that our homes have taken over its functions is equivalent to ignoring over a century of evidence that it can adapt. For as long as people need to collaborate and have work-related social interactions, there will be a need for that venue we call an office. It’s up to each business to seize the initiative and make changes that will suit the evolving needs of its workforce.