Where Will We Be Working Next Year?
This is not a geographical or recruitment question! It is far more a question of trying to predict the future of the office as we know it and how further changes are going to affect the world of office workers. Many of you will be surprised to know that the first idea of remote working was launched in the 1970’s by NASA engineers as a means of combatting the oil crisis, so what has happened since? To gain an understanding of this you need to assess a vast range of criteria ranging from the history of technical progress to the influence of social criteria such as prestige and office politics, the complexity of which means that it is difficult to ascertain where the future lies.
When offices as we know them first came into existence, they were designed to be functional, to provide space for the expensive machines in use and the way people worked – a lot of paper was being moved around, so it made sense for the workforce to be concentrated in one place. Then came the added phenomenon of prestige, a beautiful office block made an obvious statement about how well the company was doing and the higher your position in the office hierarchy the higher your level in that building (quite literally), a self-perpetuating approach based on prestige and office politics. As technology advanced, more expensive machines were introduced, but communication was still largely in paper form, remember the first email was only sent in 1971 and took some time to gain acceptance. A little more attention was attributed to office design and employee comfort, but the social model of the day – a man went to work and a woman stayed at home – did not question the need to leave the house every morning, far from it the size of an office was a clear indicator of social status and success.
The invention of personal computers combined with email and later the Internet heralded a major change to this structure. Communication was no longer restricted to paper form and could even be undertaken without the involvement of a secretary; thus change was again driven by invention; even though it resulted in some new task attribution little changed with respect to hierarchical structures and thus work processes. Social status was still closely linked to work status, boundaries were clear cut and largely unquestioned, even self-perpetuating. Then, major advances in access to education changed the way women thought about their roles just when the economy needed more “resources”, so they were drafted in to work with little if any consideration of their family situation; there was no conception of work-life balance and if you did not like the situation, you could leave!
So much has changed since then. A shortage of well-trained staff and changes in attitudes to working hours, commuting time and office hierarchy, not to mention the invention of light weight personal computers and other IT hardware have revolutionised the work place. Interior designers have been drafted in to create work oases, where employees should feel happy to work, where innovation should flow and creativity flourish. If only it were so easy. Then came new theories in office management, heralding the end of hierarchy as we know it, with each employee assuming responsibility for their tasks and deadlines; this raised many questions about office layout, working from home and working hours. By 2013, as many as 2.3% of the American workforce were working from home, but then the ratio started to drop, as many companies came to realise there were pitfalls that needed attention. To quote Jennifer Petriglieri & Gianpiero Petriglieri the importance of the office as a fixture, as part of our cultural framework should not be underestimated “..perhaps that is what a home is. A place that stays with you, even after you have gone. And for professional selves, that home we need and love to hate at times is the office”.
For many an office provides a framework and a routine, a clear cut between home and work, and even the commute can be seen as a space in which to think or recuperate between locations. Obviously, a great deal depends on the type of job exercised, as well as the need for interaction with other colleagues, but according to Nancy B. Rothbard, many feel a need for integration and segmentation providing clear information about who is working on the basis of which criteria. The current crisis has thrown millions of workers into remote working, on the whole this has been effective, but in crises we react differently, we cope and find ways of making things work without necessarily expecting this to become a permanent solution. Juggling childcare and household routines can be upheld over a limited period of time, but most parents need to know when their offspring will be at school/childcare, so they can concentrate on their tasks. Similarly, initial euphoria about reduced commuting costs may be dampened when utility bills arrive and workers become fed up with convenience food as a replacement for cleverly composed dietary well balanced and subsidised canteen menus. As said, there are so many criteria to take into account that there is no easy answer.
External factors also need to be considered, the implantation of offices interacts with other economic partners and local suppliers and thus has a major impact on the local economy; shops and offices are currently missing a lot of customers as fewer workers enter towns – this cannot decide on the future of offices, but it shows that no one aspect can be considered separately when assessing its relevance for the economy as a whole. Environmental aspects may also be brought into play, indeed when workers are in remote locations, companies expend less on utilities, but this merely reflects a shift to other users and in fact most offices continue to run their air conditioning systems etc. even if the offices are empty, so in fact the savings are limited. Reductions in commuting may reflect a considerable reduction in C02 emissions as far as private transport is concerned, but buses and trains run to schedule regardless of the number of passengers! Given the increase in expenditure at home (utilities, food, etc.) the savings on transportation costs may not even be worth mentioning. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of office-based working and how are these likely to evolve?
Many argue about the need to know where your staff are and what they are doing, but this approach is seriously antiquated and suggests that the company has a more serious issue to deal with than whether remote working is appropriate. An office reflects a work culture, it provides something to identify with; it provides a framework for a team and a focus in terms of identity and goals. Can a remote location replace this unless extreme care is taken to reappraise the underlying way people work? If it is possible to attribute clear objectives and deadlines, this may be possible but the relationship between co-workers is far more complicated than the question of meeting a deadline. Much has been written about the importance of informal exchanges or unplanned interactions and as remote working lasts longer, so employees feel the need for such real exchanges and interaction, the chance to ask an opinion informally, a scrap of useful information gathered by chance, not to mention the incredible power of a sense of belonging and empathy – some-one cares about what I do, is interested in my work, it is meaningful. There is evidence to suggest that the lack of such informal points of contact may lead to a loss of trust and have a negative impact on collaboration and innovation.
One should also bear in mind the differences in infrastructure, even in many developed countries; in some areas remote working is simply not an option because of lack of access to reliable Internet connections. Social factors may also play a role, unless a company provides all the necessary materials, some people may not be able to afford to work from home in terms of adequate furniture and space – remember the early days of zoom meetings with everyone complaining about back ache caused by inappropriate furniture at home? This may result in a new social divide: the “cans” and can’ts”, which without skilful management may also result in resentment and a fall in engagement levels. The system needs to be seen as fair and thus acceptable, tailored to the company’s needs rather than the result of ad hoc requests. Ultimately the aim should be to define the best model for the entire workforce, which may turn out to be a hybrid concept, providing a certain degree of flexibility whilst ensuring that “the job is done”: productivity based on the teams involved and their options for interaction and avoiding both extremes of everyone being present or at home. It is commonly known that social isolation can have devastating effects on mental health and self-confidence.
In their article “Proof that positive work cultures are more productive” Emme Seppälä & Kim Cameron state that “wellbeing comes from one place, and one place only – a positive work culture” They go on to explain that to achieve this a leader must “foster social connections, show empathy, help others and encourage people to talk about their problems… in doing so a company will “attract employees, making them more loyal to the leader and to the organization as well as bringing out their best strengths. When organizations develop positive, virtuous cultures they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and employee engagement.” In most cases, a physical link serves to embed this sense of identity with the work culture; the experience of seeing that values are lived on a daily basis.
So, where will we be working next year? The jury is still out, as no concrete assumption can be made as along as the Covid crisis continues to impact our daily working lives. However, as Augustin Chevez says, “the office is an invention – not a natural phenomenon… if we think of the office as an invention, then we can reinvent it”. Just as each company pursues its own economic goals, so it must find the right model for its field and workforce. No matter the choice, it is important to communicate well and to accept that this model may not be definitive and may need adjusting from time to time.
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 Gianpiero Petriglieri In Praise of the Office 15.07.2020
 Nancy P. Rothbard Building work-life boundaries in the WFH era 15.07.2020
 Ethan Bernstein & team The implications of working without an office HBR 07.2020
 Augustin Chevez The benefits and pitfalls of working in isolation 08.11.2018
 Emma Seppälä & Kim Cameron Proof that positive work cultures are more productive HBR 01.12.2015
 Augustin Chevez A brief history of the modern office HBR 07.2020