Mal Fletcher
The Workspace Revolution

Are Offices On The Way Out?

Teamwork, wrote Andrew Carnegie, is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought huge changes to the working habits of millions, perhaps billions, of people worldwide.

For example, commuting and office work have been hit hard by Covid19. Before the pandemic, more than 20 percent of European workers spent 90 minutes or more commuting to and from work. That will definitely change for the post-Covid generation. 

In a Europe-wide study earlier this year, 34 percent of people surveyed said they’d be willing to accept a lower paid job if it meant they could continue to work from home. 

There are significant benefits to home-working, not least in terms of the environment.  Lockdowns have raised awareness about the difference road vehicles make to the air we breathe. In Europe, during the first lockdown of 2020, nitrogen dioxide levels were 40 percent down on the previous year. Researchers say that 11,000 fewer people died during the early lockdowns thanks to cleaner air.

Remote working also brings benefits for some employers, in terms of worker satisfaction and productivity. This is especially true if employees are highly motivated and self-disciplined. 

However, it presents challenges in the areas of socialisation and collaborative innovation. If old ideas are going to connect to form new ideas, a process that’s central to innovation, people must connect. Studies indicate that people often connect in more meaningful ways in physical space than they do via zoom meetings. That's certainly true when it comes to spawning and developing ideas. 

So, offices will still be important for many individuals and organisations in the post-pandemic era. Leaders and managers, though, need to remember that, for many employees, blended working is now an expectation rather than a mere aspiration. 

On a few fronts, Covid-19 sped up changes that might otherwise have occurred much more gradually. In schools and universities, for example, educators learned to retool for digital learning. They realised that online teaching could augment the classroom without replacing it.

Arguably, this would have happened anyway over time, especially with the increasing sophistication of technologies like augmented and virtual reality and holographics. A similar shift has occurred in approaches to blended medicine, where many doctors’ appointments are conducted on the phone or online. Similarly, the workspace will need to evolve to accommodate and celebrate the advantages of at least part-time home-working. 

Office designers and managers will need to pay more attention to the mental and emotional impact of these spaces on their teams. The human emotional response to an emergency event, like a pandemic, often outlives the technical cause of the emergency. We saw this unfold in the USA in the weeks and months following 9/11. 

Airports remained largely empty in parts of the country for up to three months following the World Trade Centre attacks. Some airlines were forced to apply for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. 

This was not directly due to the work of terrorists; it was the result of human emotional response to the work of terrorists. Human emotion often takes a long while to adjust once a shock event has occurred. 

Employers will need to monitor the emotional health of their teams even after we’ve collectively arrived at an accommodation with Covid-19. Even in lockdown UK, while people were still forced to work from home, some managers wisely encouraged their people to spend work time informally catching up with colleagues.  

Employees were urged to grab a “virtual coffee” if they were meeting online and to talk more openly about how they were coping with the pressures of the moment. Many were instructed to switch off work-based email accounts at the end of each working day, to relieve stress.
For a while, some people will continue to struggle, on an emotional level, with the notion of working in close proximity with others. Many furloughed staff, who’ve been paid to stay at home for long periods, will need help to re-engage with the pressures of office work.  
I’m not suggesting that CEOs or managers become healthcare workers or psychologists. It’s simply a question of being willing to make changes to the office set-up and then being patient as people adjust. 
In the longer term, we’ll see some large companies - and networks of smaller ones - offering basic mental health “clinics” for their workers. These will be small but professionally run units, within the organisation, which provide training and support with basic mental health skills, problem-solving techniques and transition-management tools.
These skills can be drawn from disciplines like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and can often be at least partly self-administered, with the training and backup. This will become even more important in the face of the Automation Revolution, where people will change not just their jobs, but their entire careers, several times over.

So, exactly what will the post-pandemic office environment look like? In short, it will need to offer a more whole-of-life experience. Unless placed under severe financial stress, people will not want to commute for hours every day just to sit in soulless cubicles, working to someone else’s timetable.

Offices spaces will need to offer access to decent food and pleasant coffee areas. Many will offer spaces for exercise, downtime and reflection, all during working hours. Access to the natural environment will be important, too, even if that simply involves access to an atrium or windows looking out on trees. 

In terms of logistics, staggered working hours will be attractive, especially in highly congested urban environments. In city hubs, public transport becomes over-crowded at certain times of day, raising proximity-related stress levels. We’ve now been conditioned to see crowding as a danger to our health. That’s not a feeling that will dissipate quickly, at least not when it comes to workplaces.

The pandemic birthed an “economy without crowds”. It significantly shrunk parts of the economy that depend on social proximity, such as the restaurant and entertainment sectors.
However, on the other side of the emergency, people will recognise more than ever the value of community - and its importance to our mental health. They will understand that if home-working takes up their entire week, it’s likely to block the mental health benefits of socialisation. 
Wise companies and organisations will therefore offer their employees the opportunity to work remotely for at least part of their time, if at all possible. Depending on the type of work involved, they will likely insist that some time is spent in the collegiate office environment. 
Smart employers will ensure that their offices are physically and culturally configured for interaction and the free flow of ideas, with physical safety. The best offices are like living organisms; they shape-shift to allow for changing emotional and psychological needs as well as the fluid stream of ideas between teams. 
Moving beyond the pandemic, however long that takes, will offer us a unique chance to re-jig work practices and spaces to boost levels of innovation and human teamwork. As Carnegie suggested, it may well bring uncommon, even extraordinary results.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

About us