Very few have had a good word to say about the office in years. Today however, as most of the world is forced to hunker down at home, one can sense a collective longing among many for the routine and shared tribulations that are part of work at the office. The sudden shift to remote working has led many to question what comes next. Will the conveniences of work from home lead companies to deem offices as anachronistic, wasteful extravagances? Or will the office persist, bruised and perhaps in a different avatar? As the world emerges from the coronavirus-induced lockdowns, the workplace as we know it today, may transform beyond recognition.
This question is a privileged one at its core. The pandemic has exposed the inequalities inherent in our perverse labour market structures – it’s impact has been profoundly asymmetric, with most work having simply collapsed. Even among those fortunate enough to be in employment, the possibility of remote working is a white-collar luxury: the vast majority of workers around the world still have to go in to work. Therefore, the question really is, as MIT’s Elizabeth Reynolds put it succinctly at a recent webinar: how shall we make workplaces safer for those who have to go in to work, and working remotely more effective for those who don’t.
As the pandemic struck, offices across the world witnessed a mass exodus as companies rapidly moved their entire staff to work from home arrangements. For many of these industries, murmurs proclaiming the death of the office weren’t exactly new: this trend was underway for a while as city rents skyrocketed and the digital revolution made work from home an occasional possibility. The pandemic seems to have accelerated these trends, and in that process, it has busted the myth of the office being “essential” for many. Whether it still remains desirable is an open question, and will determine whether these companies shall continue to invest in increasingly expensive physical workspaces going forward.
The Covid-19 induced recession is likely to place tremendous pressure on companies to cut costs, and getting rid of expensive properties may be one way to do that. Some like food giant Mondelez and investment bank Morgan Stanley have already indicated their intentions to down-size their physical presence. According to Savills’ CEO Mark Ridley, we may see some disruption in the secondary real-estate market as some companies ditch their properties, but it’s unlikely that this will be as widespread a trend as feared. In fact, there may even be reason for optimism as a reversal of densification within workspaces may create a need for more and bigger spaces than before.
Even tech companies, which have been the first adopters of work from home policies, are not looking to completely get rid of office campuses. Decisions on this front are likely to be nuanced and carefully considered : the office still holds tremendous value for companies as a space for employees to congregate and collaborate, and work towards a shared purpose. The pandemic has also made it painfully obvious that working from home is an uncomfortable adjustment for many employees, especially working mothers juggling childcare with work and people working from cramped apartment buildings with no space for a home office. Twitter and Slack have taken the leap to reimburse their employees for home office expenses.
Companies are now far more likely to adopt hybrid models of work, blending remote and office teams. We can also expect a rise in distributed working, with companies looking to create multiple hubs to distribute the risk of an office being potentially struck down by a crisis. A few are already looking to co-working space providers to step in and provide decentralised office spaces across cities. The pandemic however, is also a curveball for the co-working industry, and it’s currently unclear how the sector’s business model based around community working will adapt. Co-working could get a boost from those looking to outsource the trouble of providing high-maintenance workspaces and those needing low-cost, flexible office spaces for their employees, but this will depend on how well these providers adapt. They shall need to pivot from a focus on providing cosy huddle-zones to providing sanitised, open spaces allowing social distancing. This may make it economically unviable for the smaller providers to survive. Those that are able to do so, are likely to capture the market.
The workplaces we return to post-Covid are likely to look very different from those we left behind. With safety trumping all other considerations, office design and layouts shall undergo a significant transformation. Employees can expect thermal screening on entering office buildings, and may have to don masks and protective equipment mandatorily. Buildings shall have to be disinfected at regular intervals, and visibly so, in order to placate worried employees. The possibility of rapid contagion would mean most companies shall have to instate wide-scale testing of workers at regular intervals. Employees can also look forward to better-ventilated offices – money spent on UV air filtration systems and dehumidifiers would be money very well spent, with huge payoffs for employee health and productivity.
The pandemic may soon spell the demise of skyscrapers which have dotted city skylines for decades, as vertical architecture poses a significant challenge to social distancing requirements. Elevators being likely hotbeds of germs, moving people around vertically may no longer be a safe proposition, and may call for significant architectural adjustments. A bigger change would be the end of the much-disparaged open-plan office. With offices suddenly keen to put walls between people, the demand for perspex, plexiglass and “sneeze guard partitions” to separate desks from each other has spiked. Inventive solutions have cropped up already – Cushman & Wakefield is using colourful carpet tiles to demarcate zones and companies are also instituting one-way lanes within offices to avoid people bumping into each other. Contactless entryways, less obtrusive furniture and in-office video-conferences instead of large meetings could be the new normal. Office cafeterias could soon look very different as well – coffee machines, food courts and microwaves at work may well be a thing of the past.
The future of workplace design appears to be mostly benign, if slightly awkward. However, a particularly disconcerting trend is also being catalysed further by the pandemic – the rise of workplace surveillance. Companies unused to navigating the new world of remote work are finding themselves leaning heavily on surveillance tools as a way to ensure outcomes. This is especially so for those which relied on presenteeism excessively as a proxy for measuring productivity. The increased adoption of intrusive tools like InterGuard and Hubstaff can have paralysingly detrimental effects on employee morale and foster discontent and anxiety among workers. These developments also have massive implications for worker rights and privacy.
The use of movement-tracking software and contact-tracing apps appear to have already gained rapid acceptance among employers. Going forward, offices may demand employee health records and rely on facial recognition technology to monitor movement. Many companies like Basecamp and Siemens have denounced this trend severely and have chosen to let employees self-regulate instead. Siemens has developed a self-declaration app where workers record their symptoms and only a select few get office access. Prizing trust in employees, especially amidst uncertainty, will be key to ensuring long-term productivity.
One word may therefore sum up the future of workspaces : flexible. Organisations shall find that agility will be key to navigating an uncertain future of work. It’s likely to be a tremulous transition, as workers and employers attempt to find the right balance, with these bleak measures and prohibitive designs in place. However, on the flip side, workers could be granted more autonomy and flexibility, now that the pandemic has afforded employees the opportunity for a mass crash course in operating digital tools, allowing seamless collaboration remotely. Offices could also take the opportunity to become more attractive, serving as brainstorming hubs to touch base rather than sites of daily drudgery. In fact, the pandemic may have done the office a huge favour – forcing a long-overdue reckoning.
The chance conversations by the coffee-machine however, will be sorely missed.
Sangeet Jain @SangeetSJain is a Junior Fellow at ORF, working with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy and the Tech and Media Initiative. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.