Is the Future of Work the End of the Office?

By Danny Bradbury, Contributor

As any commercial real estate agent will tell you, location is everything. That’s why offices close to clients and downtown resources fetch higher rents. But now, something has changed everything.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down more than a third of the world, including large tracts of the United States. Now experts believe this is more than a temporary shift and will lead companies and employees alike to rethink where work gets done on a permanent basis.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Perspectives on What’s to Come and How We’ll Adapt

Telework is nothing new, but not many people have taken advantage of it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 7 percent of civilian workers in the U.S. (around 9.8 million people) have access to teleworking benefits such as avoiding the daily commute, spending more time at home with family, and maintaining better focus. That figure has soared so far in 2020. A report from MIT researchers published in April found 34.1 percent of respondents had switched from commuting to the office to working from home as a result of the coronavirus.

Many of those people who have moved to working from home will stick to these new models. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey already made remote working an official permanent Twitter policy, emailing employees with the news. At Dell Technologies, about 25 percent of the workforce was working from home prior to the pandemic, and had been for more than a decade.

This new policy is inevitable for many, according to Patrick Lodge, a partner at Working the Future, a consulting and research company that helps clients create adaptable, innovative working environments. He believes the pandemic accelerated an existing trend.

“The ability to work flexibly was emerging as a key bargaining chip in employment contract negotiations both in North America and Europe, proving attractive in particular to millennial work cohorts…”

—Patrick Lodge, partner, Working the Future

“The ability to work flexibly was emerging as a key bargaining chip in employment contract negotiations both in North America and Europe, proving attractive in particular to millennial work cohorts who are increasingly vocal in their quest for optimal work/life-blend,” he says.

The drivers will be partly risk-related. Social distancing rules will relax slowly, according to government experts, and companies may find employees wary of rubbing shoulders in public places. Post-pandemic, companies will also be more sensitive to location risk, warns Melissa Swift, senior client partner and leader in digital advisory for Korn Ferry Hay Group. “Any time you have a lot of people in the same place, you’re just very vulnerable to what happens [there],” she says, pointing to COVID-19’s impact on New York City. “A lot of it’s beyond your control.”

The answer? Companies can diversify their employees’ locations in the same way that they would a stock portfolio, Swift says.

The Office Must Find a New Purpose

Does this mean that the office will disappear? That’s unlikely, but its function and format may change. “The point isn’t that the office is dead,” Swift continues. “It’s more like we’re resetting the purpose of the office in a very fundamental way.”

“The point isn’t that the office is dead. It’s more like we’re resetting the purpose of the office in a very fundamental way.”

—Melissa Swift, senior client partner and digital advisory leader, Korn Ferry Hay Group

Rethinking the office’s purpose may also be an economic imperative. Many companies will have to cut costs—and downtown rents are high—warns Lodge. “So it makes perfect sense to minimize the overhead of office or production space where business models permit,” he says. “For many businesses, particularly those operating in the ‘knowledge economy’ space, it makes little sense to keep paying rent at the same rate,” he says, referring to the section of the economy that derives most of its value from intellectual capital, from marketing consultancies through to lawyers.

So offices will be smaller, but you may also see fewer people hunched over laptops there. Hot-desking—the practice of sharing desks on a temporary basis rather than assigning them to specific employees—might be a turn-off for employees worried about germs, warns Swift. You might also say goodbye to the conference room. “For infection control purposes, those things are like petri dishes,” she says.

Instead, Swift imagines semi-open environments, using reduced square footage more effectively for collaborative spaces where people come together for a mixture of high-quality intellectual and social interaction. Forget that standing weekly conference room meeting. Tomorrow’s meetings will be focused, functional, and fun, with a strategic imperative. “Offices have the potential to cease being solely places of work and more hubs for ideation, trust-building, connection, and a sense of belonging,” says Lodge. “These are essential ingredients for high-performance teams.”

The rest of the time, Swift envisions workers at home, enjoying more productivity and a better work-life balance. More sophisticated collaborative tools such as video conferencing and group messaging systems will become the norm, enabling workers to check in on each other with operational queries and further reducing the need for “old-school” in-person meetings.

Employees Must Find New Skills

Working in different locations requires new skill sets. Dell Technologies’ study on the future of work, “Realizing 2030,” identifies top skills, including technical literacy, to handle these new collaborative tools. The study found more than half of all respondents were convinced that the next generation of workers will disrupt the workforce with their ingrained digital skills and mindset. Smart companies can use younger workers to their advantage, with 77 percent of young respondents willing to mentor older workers in tech.

It also identified a need for softer skills, too, such as creative thinking, objective judgment, logic, and communication skills. One of the most important skills for a relocated workforce will be emotional intelligence. Swift calls for empathy—the ability to understand other perspectives, avoid judgment, and intuit the needs of other employees even when they don’t offer explicit detail.

“Community and collaboration directly play into employee experience, engagement, satisfaction, and company culture, especially with a geographically distributed workforce.”

—Tamara McCleary, CEO, Thulium

This need for better collaboration is crucial, according to Tamara McCleary, CEO at global marketing agency Thulium. “Community and collaboration directly play into employee experience, engagement, satisfaction, and company culture, especially with a geographically distributed workforce,” she explains.

Companies may have to step in and help employees grasp some of these concepts. All digital communications from venerable channels like email through to Slack and Microsoft Teams will need more instruction. Many people still don’t understand the need to send brief messages, for example, and digital communication’s asynchronous nature—the need to wait for replies from others—can leave people fretting about each other’s intentions. Even the perceived tone of a message can cause consternation. Organizations must help by setting standards and expectations, Swift warns.

These challenges notwithstanding, remote working is going to change everything. “The office, as a place of work, is looking increasingly 20th century,” concludes Lodge. Yesterday, people spent time justifying why they should spend the day working from home. Today, and for the foreseeable future, many will find ourselves justifying why they need to make that special trip to the office.