Empty office space
14 April 2021 | Business, News

The Office of the Future

During the last year it’s become clear that many office workers across all sorts of industries and disciplines don’t really need to all work together in the same office space.  Even before the March 2020 lockdown was announced companies had started to allow flexible home-working options to their teams, and rent-a-desk companies such as WeWork were making in-roads into disrupting traditional office leasing.

It was generally thought that offices were essential to the proper functioning of teams, that they facilitate productive collaboration, and that workers enjoyed being in them.  Office space had evolved from spaces for small teams, separated from other teams by doors and walls, into large open-plan spaces, where tens or hundreds of people would work together.  Open-plan working was heralded as the optimum working environment, something that is increasingly thought to be rarely true, particularly where interdisciplinary teams are side-by-side.  For example, technology teams become less effective when working alongside sales or support functions, where interruption from telephones and cross-chatter interferes with tasks that require focus and deep concentration.

Since the “only go to your place of work if absolutely necessary” directive that came at the end of March 2020, many companies and their employees are reporting that working from home has been hugely successful.  Even die-hard office fans have become fans of the short commute and flexibility that working from home offers.  Employers have found that their teams become more productive and effective while working from home, where they are able to focus for longer, ignoring notifications and benefiting from being able to control interruption from colleagues.  Even during periods where home-working parents have also had to look after and educate their children, people are reporting having enjoyed mental and physical benefits despite the added complications that 24×7 child-care has brought.

Conversely, the social elements of working alongside colleagues in an office cannot be easily reproduced with a distributed team regardless of how good remote working technology is.  Ad-hoc idle-time chats while waiting for the kettle to boil, or brief discussion about the weekend’s activities in the elevator tend not to happen.  It’s these small interactions that build trust and friendship between teammates, resulting in improved company- or team-wide performance.  Finding new ways of maintaining this development of trust is something that many companies are still working out.

Looking ahead, it’s likely that companies will offer some sort of hybrid home/office option, whereby employees spend some time working from home and some at the office.  That could reduce a company’s requirement for large office space, instead introducing hot-desking initiatives, perhaps where employees book some desk-space for a day to ensure that there is room.  Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and so on all provide real-time collaboration features

For the foreseeable future it’s probable that some COVID rules will continue to apply, with companies opting to extend them further to reduce both risk to employees and anxiety them may feel about finding themselves in a “COVID bubble” that’s much larger than they are used to.  Employees will likely continue to be required wear masks while moving around the office, facilities will be limited to single-person use, and regular cleaning will take place.  Even after lockdown restrictions have been completely lifted it will take time for employees to become comfortable about a full-time return to offices, and many will certainly miss the comfort and flexibility of working from home.

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