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Has COVID-19 accelerated the decline of conventional offices?

Chris Cracknell Chris Cracknell

As economies slowly reopen and everyday life begins crystallising into the new normal, questions about the office of the future loom larger than ever.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations were beginning to take the bold step of introducing agile working policies. Businesses were moving toward open-plan offices that utilised space efficiently; serviced offices that offer a dynamic working space; and the introduction of hotdesking facilities.

Since modern-style companies began operating, the office has been their heart of operations. Everything takes place in the office: Birthday celebrations, meetings, work, drinks, charity events, romances. Many of us have indeed formed deep bonds with our work colleagues because of the offices we share.

COVID-19 was unexpected, but companies rose to the challenge and quickly adapted their operations. The onset of the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that for many organisations, work from home is possible – and in many cases, more productive.

Tech giants such as Facebook and Google are allowing their staff to work from home until the end of the year. Twitter has gone one step further than its peers, and granted its team members permission to work from home permanently. Barclays boss Jes Staley said that operations for the financial giant are now being run by staff working from “their kitchens”. Natarajan Chandrasekaran, Tata’s chief executive, likewise forecasts that a vast majority of the industrial conglomerate’s staff will continue to work from home post-COVID-19.

Even the Parliament of the United Kingdom – which has convened amidst civil wars, world wars, and financial crises – met via Zoom a few weeks ago, in a first-of-its-kind official virtual gathering.

With the COVID-19 pandemic now shaking the very foundations of the traditional office environment, how should we expect this new world of remote work to be different from what came before?


The drawbacks of working from home

As the nerve centre of most modern organisations, the office functions as a place of work as well as social cohesion. Yet the pandemic has demonstrated how fragile this common workplace environment has become – and how much the average workplace depends on social interaction. Take the office away, and we may see that valuable solidarity, shared culture, and team spirit erode over time.

Leadership may be another casualty of the COVID-19 era. Teams need effective support from their leaders, though it is exceedingly difficult to replicate this effect within a remote working arrangement.

While Zoom, Houseparty, Microsoft Teams, and similar applications have kept those all-important lines of communication open, real camaraderie may be harder to maintain. That loss of social interaction, if inadequately compensated for, could be a mortal blow to companies that rely on their teams to collaborate on innovative ideas.

The mental and physical well-being of employees may also be at stake. Employees used to be able to discuss personal and professional issues with their manager or teammates – but those opportunities may disappear when working from home. Remote working has been known to exacerbate loneliness, isolation, anxiety, stress, pressure, and depression, as finding a satisfying social balance can prove to be difficult.

Practical issues may frequently accompany the mental and social stress of staying at home. As the traditional boundary between work and home life disappears, employees may also have difficulty finding a suitable workspace at home – especially if they share that home with family and pets.


What are the benefits of working from home?

Even before COVID-19 began to spread, professional trends were beginning to shift toward flexible schedules and agile working arrangements. Companies that offered work from home options have often reaped the benefits of having a light and agile workforce. Employees working from home are frequently more productive, and less likely to take sick leave or have unauthorised absences.

Geographic limitations disappear within a remote working system, as companies can begin hiring from anywhere in the world. Now that many more employees are working from home, they are also starting to realise the financial and personal benefits of such an arrangement.  Employees save time (no sitting in traffic or changing tube stations) and money (childcare, meals, transport, laundry, after-work social activities, car maintenance, etc).

As long as employers take proactive steps to promote social cohesion and team leadership, the end result of switching to remote work may be an overall improvement in the quality of life, health, and well-being for all concerned.


Is it really the end?

Change was always coming – this was apparent before the onset of COVID-19. As with retail, the traditional office isn’t dying; it’s going through a period of transformation.

Many organisations will come to normalise ‘work from home’ policies for the majority of their staff going forward. We are already seeing the embrace of this concept within many businesses, and expect more companies to follow suit over the coming months.

As technology advances, video conferencing will play a larger role. While face-to-face meetings will continue to be the preferred meeting option for some, most calls and meetings will take place online.

In the short-term, demand for expensive office space is likely to plummet. Serviced offices could potentially see an uptick in business, as long as they can adapt their models to accommodate a more agile format. One possibility could involve supplying ad hoc team areas for home workers to meet on a regular basis, to try and replicate that lost social interaction and close-knit feel.

Most importantly, organisations would do well to remember that their teams are the very foundation of the whole enterprise – and will remain so, regardless of whatever may change. Without that comradeship, social interaction, Friday night drinks, and any other routines that may strengthen internal bonds, the organisation will inevitably drift apart.

Technology can and is opening up the door to alternatives, but leadership must take the initiative of adapting old traditions to new circumstances. The physical office of tomorrow may look different than it did in the past; but its function will always be with us, one way or another.